“Latuda’s Lady in White” by Aaron Michael Ritchey
Hiram Woolley was with his son Michael, in the cab of their Double A truck, driving through the sage, scrub and rocks of Spring Canyon above Helper, Utah. The sunshine of a May afternoon had done a fair job turning the dirt road into dust.
Michael glanced over at him. “So, Pap, you’re saying we’re out here following your dream?”
Michael had known his father was a cunning man for only about three months. For Hiram, it was a time of hope and fear because there was a real chance he’d lose the respect of his son. Even after all they’d been through, Michael still nursed his doubts like they were the green shoots of new plants. Would they grow to bring more doubt? Or would they wither as stronger beliefs took root?
Hiram would’ve thought being in Spring Canyon again would help his son with his doubts. After all, his son had seen the forces of darkness firsthand back in February.
However, Hiram knew that the logical mind was quick to affirm its own ideas.
Hiram adjusted his fedora and wiped a hand across his mouth. What would Michael’s real father have thought of his son, flirting with atheism, longing to be a scientist. Yazzie would’ve smirked and said something sarcastic about the blind leading the deaf. Or how God had a sick sense of humor where sons, spring snowstorms, and moody wives were concerned.
In the end, Yazzie would’ve put his faith in God. And so would Hiram. “Yes, son, we’re following my dream. I had the same one a week in a row. There’s a woman in white standing outside of a black shack in Latuda.”
“The Latuda Mine,” Michael took his dark eyes from the road, as if he needed his father to see his fear. “Just up the way from the Kimball Mine. After all we’ve been through, mines are not really popular with me, Pap.”
Hiram shrugged and gestured for his son to keep his eyes on the winding stretch of dusty road. The previous day’s rains had helped the desert limp out of a long winter, though that moisture was now gone, and they might not get more rain for weeks if not months.
“However much I’m soured on mines, Pap, it’s still just a dream.” His son paused to consider the problem with that quick mind of his. “But the same dream? Seven nights in a row? That is odd. I wonder what Carl Jung would say about it.”
Hiram extended his hand to show his son a big silver ring on his right ring finger, fashioned from Saturn-metal and bearing Saturn-signs, after the pattern his Grandma Hettie showed him “I know you probably won’t believe this, but the ring is attuned to Saturn, and brings me dreams.”
“I’ll probably never believe in any of that astrology stuff,” Michael said. “The planets are just planets in our solar system. It’s like saying what’s going on in San Francisco right now is having an effect on my life. Sorry, Pap. Don’t buy it.”
And Hiram knew there was a good chance that his son never would believe in anything but his scientific method. His world had been reduced to atoms, planets, and human fallibility. But Hiram felt God’s authenticity, and he knew know that ring had given him a powerful dream that needed to be heeded.
A woman in a crystal white gown next to a black house. Her face was pale, her eyelids pink, her nose red from crying. She reached out with white, pleading hands. Her fingernails seemed pink at first glance. A second look—her fingernails were gone. She’d scratched them off. There should’ve been more blood. At first, Hiram thought her hair was blonde. No, it was white, almost crystalline, like her dress. Her pale blue eyes seemed to be frozen open.
Behind her leaned a black tar paper shack, all by itself, in gray-green sage.
The dream tumbled into images. A man’s rough hand with big knuckles and black fingernails gripped a bottle of whiskey. Wind whistled through a broken window. Snowflakes tumbled through the crack and onto a counter where the word Latuda had been written in blood.
Whispers, whispers under the floor of the shack.
The whispers woke Hiram up, covered in sweat, with one last image in his mind.
The woman’s mouth—a white tongue on yellow teeth and chapped lips—whispering the same words over and over.
No one can help me.
Those five words whispered over and over.
“Do you want to tell me more about the dream, Pap?” his son asked.
“Maybe it was just a dream.” Lying to son was almost as easy lying to himself. It shouldn’t be like that. Truth should be his armor, and it was, most of the time.
Hiram’s truth right then? He didn’t want to talk about the woman. She unnerved him. He wanted to quiet her urgent whispers. He wanted her to find peace in the Lord Divine.
Hiram and his son motored up through the mining camp of Latuda, which was empty of men, since they’d be underground. Women stood chatting outside doors of clapboard houses. Children gamboled in the alleys between shacks mixed with tents. The administrative buildings and town shop stood off in the distance. Most of Latuda lay on a flat space halfway up a rocky ridge that still had some snow in the north-facing shade. The settlement looked far more like an established town than the Kimball Mine had. Latuda seemed like it could make a real go of it and maybe even rival Helper someday.
“Turn right,” Hiram muttered. He was going on intuition. Down between houses, he saw the shack, built back away from other homes, standing alone in the gray-green sage. Near one squat house, a thick woman hung laundry with a wooden clothespin in her mouth. Near her, a little boy threw a rock at a cat. His aim wasn’t good. The cat went streaking off.
“That’s the shack back there,” Hiram said.
“I’ll find a place to park.” His talkative son had turned quiet. Both of them had. Normally, they’d joke and laugh. Hiram enjoyed his son’s wit like nothing else. But not that May day. Even with the sunshine, it seemed cold.
Hiram found himself clutching his chi-roh amulet. He’d slipped his hand underneath the front of his overalls and between the snap buttons of his work shirt.
Michael wedged the truck between a low pile of split firewood and another miner’s home. He turned. “Look, Pap, I’m glad I know about your cunning man work. It makes a lot of what you’ve done over the years make much more sense.”
“So you don’t think your father is crazy?” Hiram asked.
“I never said that.” His goofy grin showed he was kidding. “For example, you’re gripping your chi-roh amulet awfully tight. This one is scaring you, isn’t it?”
Hiram shrugged. “I’m probably being silly.”
“Are you bringing the gun?” Michael asked.
“I’m more worried about my soul at this point,” Hiram said. “Just wait in the truck until I know it’s safe.”
The woman who’d been hanging laundry walked up to the truck with her empty basket on her hip. “Hey. You there, man. What ye doin’ in that truck with that Indian boy?”
The woman had a harsh accent, almost British, though she hit her Rs hard and dropped her Hs. She wasn’t the woman in his vision. She had dark brown hair whipped back into a bun and big ears, probably twice the size of Hiram’s. Her nose fine at the tip but took a lesson from her ears by being abnormally wide between her big brown eyes.
Hiram had no idea what to say.
Michael was never at a loss for words. “Hi, Ma’am. I’m Michael Woolley, and this is my adopted father Hiram. We’re looking for our friend who lives back in that shack.” He pointed.
The old woman’s face fell, concern rather than suspicion in her eyes. “Mr. Teague? Can you ‘elp ‘im?”
“It’s why we’re here,” Michael said.
Hiram couldn’t help but admire his son’s quick wit. At times, Hiram thought Michael’s mouth would be his undoing. Right then, his tongue was the keenest of tools.
Hiram got out of the truck. “I’m Hiram Woolley. Is Mr. Teague home?”
The woman shrugged. “Oh, ‘e’s ‘ome. Says it’s ‘is back that ain’t right, but you know there’s more to it than that. Says that ‘e can ‘ear ‘is dead baby boy under the floorboards. Gives me the willies to ‘ear ‘im talk. I says to my Jack, we needs to help ‘im, but Austol Teague won’t let no one ‘elp ‘im ever.”
Her own big-eared boy—barefoot, patched trousers, thin shirt—squinted up at Hiram.
“I’ll go and talk to him,” Hiram said.
The old woman shook her head. “If ‘e’s not too drunk to eat, I made a bit of saffron cake. It might make ‘im feel better.”
“I’ll ask him if he’s interested,” Hiram said.
He started down the alley between two houses. The mud should’ve dried from any rain. In the shade, he felt the temperature drop to frigid. It shouldn’t be so chilly.
Hiram thumbed the Saturn ring. His dream was warning, and he was glad his son was back in the car. Most of the time ghosts were just lost souls, melancholy, fearful, and lonely. Sometimes they wanted to grasp the warmth of living if only to watch them grow cold.
Hiram had his chi-roh amulet. He had his bloodstone in the side pocket of his overalls. Both offered protection, but his best weapon was his faith.
He walked down the muddy track and up to the shack’s door. Leather hinges held the door to a rough piece of wood. He knocked three times.
“What!” A voice bellowed from inside.
“Would you have a minute to talk, Mr. Teague?” Hiram touched the felt of the tar paper. The waterproof material was originally meant to lay under the roofing shingles. But tacking it down to the outside walls kept the wood dry and offered a scant bit of insulation.
“Who’s coming to talk to me? Boss Woon? I’m laid up on account of me back. No work today! Tell Woon to piss off!”
“I’m Hiram Woolley,” He wished he had Michael’s way with words. As it was, Hiram didn’t know what else to say, so he merely stepped back into the truth. “I dreamed about a woman standing in front of your house, Mr. Teague. It’s strange, but it’s the truth.”
From inside, heavy boots stomped across a wooden floor. The door was wrenched open. Austol Teague stood in his stained undershirt. His coveralls were pulled down to his waist. He was a muscled man that had been chewed thin. He would’ve been handsome with his thick head of golden hair and his pale green eyes, instead he stood gaunt and haunted in the doorway. He might’ve been thirty years old. He looked twice that.
The stink of strong liquor boiled out of the shack. Hiram was grateful his religion had made it quite clear that alcohol shouldn’t be a part of a good man’s life. This wouldn’t be the first hope-to-die drunk Hiram had ever met.
“A woman ye say!” Teague thundered. His bottom teeth were rotten. His top teeth were oddly much better. Again, it was a face that should’ve been more handsome than it was.
“A lady in white,” Hiram said softly. “But she’s not with us anymore. She’s passed on. And I heard tell you lost a son.”
The man’s mouth fell open in surprise—that didn’t help the smell any. “You best tell me who you are again, mister. Tell me who you are and why my bad business is any of your concern.” Again, those hard R’s. That rough accent, that matched the woman hanging up laundry, though Teague was better with his Hs.
“I’d like to hear about your bad business,” Hiram said. “I’m from the Mormon Church, and I like to help people. I might be able to help you.”
Teague eyed him. His thick-knuckled hands hung loosely at his side. Those hands had been in Hiram’s dream, holding a bottle.
“You looking to save my soul?” the man laughed. “Unlikely, Church Man! Bloody impossible. ‘Cause I’m damned. You’re looking at a damned man.”
“Then maybe you can help me.” Hiram was glad Michael had remained in the truck. Not only was Teague drunk, maybe violently so, but there was a double-barrel shotgun at the door, sawed down. It was a weapon you didn’t hunt with. It was a weapon for killing men.
“Help you how?” Teague asked, one eye squinted, his mouth open, lips trembling.
“Mr. Teague, I’ve had the same dream seven nights in row, about a woman in white standing here in Latuda. Her whispers wake me up, and I don’t mind telling you, I wake up afraid. I don’t expect I’ll get any peace until I figure out what happened to her.”
Teague howled laughter. “Oh, Church Man, you don’t know fear. Come in. And have a drink with me, and we’ll talk fear, Church Man. We’ll talk fear.”
Hiram found himself seated at a rough-hewn pine table, on a chair that would probably rip the seat of his overalls. The room hadn’t been cleaned in months. Empty bottles lay scattered about with various tools and other mining debris. A mattress Hiram could smell was pushed against the wall across from the door. In the corner, a stove sat in a circle of ash and kindling.
Teague tipped a bottle of brown liquor, splashing hooch into a pair of ceramic mugs.
“I don’t drink, Mr. Teague. Like you said, I’m a Church Man. But I appreciate the offer.”
Teague’s pale green eyes were so bright compared to the dust on the man’s skin, from his last shift digging coal. He hadn’t washed. The liquor stink oozed out of his body along with an unwashed stench.
Teague stared at Hiram, trying to cow him, but Hiram showed his resolve, his strength of will, and his faith. The hard part had been telling the drunk man the truth. Teague could’ve made any number of choices. He’d chosen to let Hiram in and tell him his sorrows.
It was an act of charity for them both . . . for Teague to talk and for Hiram to listen.
Hiram was also glad that the drunk man hadn’t recognized his name. After their adventures in the Kimball Mine down the canyon, it felt at times he’d become a minor local celebrity. Any fame was certainly from his bloodstone, since it had that unfortunate side effect.
Teague dropped his eyes. “More for me, Church. I know the name of your lady in white. Lowenna. That was me wife. She’s dead. Her and me boy, Branek, both dead.”
“How did they die?” Hiram asked.
Teague didn’t answer. He sipped the whiskey, or bourbon, or whatever alcohol came in brown colors. Hiram didn’t know. And he wasn’t interested in knowing.
Hiram waited. Either the man would talk, or he wouldn’t. Hiram did reach into his pocket, felt the bloodstone there. He prayed to the Lord Divine that this man might unburden himself and find comfort.
“I hear my son under the floor.” Sudden tears shimmered in Teague’s pale green eyes. “He whispers at night. He knocks.” Teague wrapped his knuckles on the wood. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Hiram hadn’t dreamed about a boy. Or about knocking. But he knew about the whispers.
Teague turned sheepish. “You think I’m just another Cousin Jack, and I’ve been hearing a knacker, a knocker, a bucca. You might know it as a tommyknocker. But we’re a fair distance from the mine. And I started hearing it after Lowenna and Branek died. Wasn’t so simple, them dying.” Teague’s eyes begged Hiram for a deliverance he couldn’t give him. “I loved her, Church. She was so pretty. She was so fair. Bonny, ye might say, if life were a song.”
Hiram felt the bloodstone pinch him. That was a lie. Teague might have been married to Lowenna, but he didn’t love her, not really.
“And you loved your son?” Hiram asked.
“Yes, loved him most of all,” Teague said.
That wasn’t a lie. His bloodstone lay still in his pocket. Hiram had known men like Teague, men who tolerated a wife, but only because the woman could give them a family.
Hiram thought Teague might start weeping, but he didn’t. He drank the liquor instead of weeping, which was just one of the many problems with alcohol.
Teague sighed. “I was the best with Branek. I’ve always been a drinking man, learned to drink in my homeland of Cornwall, and a Cornish man drinks.” He sang a snatch of a drinking song, all hard Rs, in a growling language.
“Not just another Cousin Jack,” Hiram said. He remembered something, someone had told him, while he’d been in mining country. Cornish miners were so numerous, and they had such big families, a lot of times Cornish men would get hired on and ask if their Cousin Jack could come work with them. And so, Cornish miners were called Cousin Jacks.
“Not just another Cousin Jack!” Teague roared, laughing. He was getting drunker by the minute. And he glanced at the shotgun by the door. “You been dreaming about my Lowenna? You wouldn’t be the first man. She had a wanderin’ eye. Didn’t think too much of being a miner’s wife. Thought she was too pretty for Austol Teague, she did. Well I say, I was too pretty for her!” That laughter was more about hurt anger than mirth.
Teague leaned back on his pine chair. “She wasn’t in our house, Church Man, when the avalanche come. She thought to run. If she’d have stayed here, like I told ‘er. I always told ‘er. First with me tongue. Then with me fists. If she’d have bloody stayed inside, my little boy would still be alive! He’d still be alive! And not whispering at me from under the floorboards.”
He stood up, cast the chair back, finished off his drink and pushed the mug between his eyes. “I was in the mines. We came running. Our house was fine. Other houses weren’t so lucky. But she got swept out. We dug for Lowenna. We found her in blood snow. Tried to claw her way out of the ice. Lost her fingernails. Bloody stumps they were. We got her body out. Looked for my little Branek. Never found him.”
Teague stopped talking. He didn’t cry. He huffed in breath and then seemed to stop breathing all together.
Hiram ran his thumb over his Saturn ring in the gloom, and images came to him, partly from the dream, partly from his own imagination.
The windows were too filthy to let in much sun. Hiram had the idea when Lowenna was alive, she’d kept their home tidy, and yes, she might’ve wanted better things for herself than being Austol Teague’s wife, but she would’ve reminded herself to be grateful that her man had any work at all, given the state of the country.
Austol Teague was both a miner and drinker. Which was the worse problem? He tolerated his wife, yes, but he wasn’t above hitting her. He’d admitted that right to Hiram’s face.
He could see Lowenna taking care of the house, taking care of a blond little boy, enduring the long winter nights and hours. She longed for the handsome man who had captured her heart to love her, but he didn’t. He loved liquor and his son, and in that order.
She’d been boiling water for tea when she heard the thunder of the avalanche. She took up her little son in her arms. She ran through the door and the world went white.
Hiram remembered the winter of ’27—snowstorms hit every week. He remembered reading about avalanches hitting Spring Canyon. That must’ve been when Lowenna died, which meant, she’d been gone eight winters now. Teague kept on at the mine, worked only so hard as not to get fired, so he had enough money to keep the shack and to keep drunk.
Teague stood with his mug pressed against his forehead. He’d stopped huffing. It was silent.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Hiram felt the hairs on his back stand on end. An icy, evil feeling filled his belly.
Teague walked over and set his empty mug down at the table. He grabbed the full one he’d poured for Hiram. “There he is, Church Man. Little Branek. He knocks during the day. He whispers at night, only real quiet like, so’s I can’t hear the words. Sets my hair on end. I’d leave here. I’d go. But being near him is better than not. Do ya kin?”
There were no lies there.
But Hiram hadn’t dreamed of the son, only of the woman. Why?
Because the son had moved on into the loving arms of the Lord Divine. Whatever was knocking and whispering under the floor wasn’t the man’s son.
Hiram stood, moved the bottle and mug off, and lifted that table. He set both chairs against a bare wall. The floor was pine, one by six boards, with a crack between them.
“Don’t waste your time, Church. I looked. Can’t see a thing.”
The bloodstone pinched Hiram’s leg. A lie.
All that time, Teague hadn’t looked. He hadn’t wanted to know. He found a horrific comfort in what he thought was his dead son’s knocks and whispers
Hiram knelt above where he’d heard the knocking. He was afraid of what he’d see under the floor, and yet, he had to check. He felt the mystery of the moment longing to be solved. “Can you get me a candle, Mr. Teague? It’s not your son down there. It’s something else.”
The Cornish man gripped his mug in white-knuckled fingers. It was amazing that ceramic didn’t shatter to pieces all together. “You come into my house, Church. You talk about my wife! And you want to disturb my boy! He wants to be down there, Church! He wants to be down there, damn you!”
Teague threw the mug and it smashed against the wall. He whirled, going for the shotgun.
Hiram was both fit and sober. He crossed the room to snatch the shotgun out of Teague’s grip, so he couldn’t use that other barrel. The pair fought over the weapon. The Cornish man’s finger must’ve hit one of the triggers because the shell on the right-side fizzled and smoked. That gun-smoke perfume helped with the stench. Teague’s stink nearly overwhelmed Hiram. However, it gave him some incentive to end the fight quickly.
Had Hiram gotten lucky? No, that shell misfired because Hiram was being protected by his faith. He was a righteous man, and he’d been called to the shack on a righteous mission.
Teague’s muscles were solid knots of steel, from all those hours working moving rock. Hiram, though, was the better fighter, thanks only to the Great War.
Hiram stomped on the man’s shin, then tore the gun away, and slammed the butt into Teague’s chest.
The Cornish man went crashing into a little counter by the door, turned, and grabbed a pick.
Hiram backed up with the shotgun raised. He wasn’t going to shoot Teague unless he came at him.
Both men were breathing hard.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
From the center of the room. Underneath the floor.
Hiram felt his mouth go dry, and again, icy fingers tickled his nape. He remembered more about Cousin Jacks, and about their tales of the tommyknockers. “Two knocks means you’re close to what you want, whether that be coal or gold. Three knocks means you need to dig somewhere else. It’s not your boy, Mr. Teague.”
The drunk man shrieked, “It is him! You want for me to show you? You want for me to see his little broken body? He crawled through the snow to get under our house. He’s under there!”
Teague hammered the pick into the floor, again and again, driving the pick into the wood. He grunted as he pried lose the squealing, squeaking boards.
Hiram watched with the shotgun. If some fiend did live under the floor, that left barrel might come in handy.
Teague got one board up, and then a second. The windows were too filthy for enough light for them to see what lay underneath the floor.
Hiram’s sweat was chill on his hot skin. While that cabin should’ve been hot in the May sunshine, it felt like February. And the smells, of the sorrow, the liquor, the wasted life, made it reek like a crypt.
The drunk man retreated to get a candle, but he was trembling so much, he had trouble getting a match lit. Finally, after three dead matches, he got a flame. He set the candle near the pit. Most of the ground was hard-packed dirt. In the center was a pit, two feet in diameter. The hole was stuffed with tar paper, some old canvas, some old gray timber, and some cast off Juniper branches.
Teague grunted and sweated as he pulled debris out of the hole. Hiram watched with a terrible feeling in his gut. Of what they might find.
Teague tossed the branches, canvas, and tar paper over his shoulder, until the hole was cleared. Teague pointed at marks in the rock and a single cross beam of an old railroad tie, stained with creosote. “Those are chisel strikes there. And that beam is the top of a crib. This must be an old mineshaft, far from the mine itself, or maybe connected.”
Both Hiram and the Cornish man froze—to contemplate that hole and what it might mean.
The next knock, a single knock, made them both jump. It was the door. “Hey, Pap, it’s Michael. I got worried about you. Can I come in?”
“Look!” Teague gasped.
The flickering candle cast a dim, uneven light below. But it was enough to show a green arm, the hairy arm of a tiny man. He didn’t have five fingers . . . just four, including a thumb. His body was lost in darkness, but that hand was there. It made a fist and wrapped on the cross beam.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Then a whisper. The candle went out.
Hiram’s mind tried to convince himself he hadn’t seen what he’d seen, or heard what he heard, but he had a vision of a little man in overalls made from scraps of cloth—denim, tar paper, canvas, a tiny man with tiny hands and feet. And a black bushy beard. He had diamonds instead of eyes. He whispered and knocked. Whispered and knocked. Three times.
“What you want isn’t down there,” Hiram said. “You’re a Cornish man. Act like one.”
Teague’s face was ashen.
Hiram continued. “Your Branek has passed on and now walks hand-in-hand with the Lord Divine.”
Michael pushed open the door. “Pap, what’s going on?”
“Get the saffron cake from the woman. Tell her that Mr. Teague is hungry.”
Michael’s eyes went to the hole in the floor of the shack, then to the shotgun in Hiram’s hands, and then to Teague, who was gray, hardly breathing. Those pale green eyes were a lot more sober than they’d been a few minutes ago.
“Cake?” Michael asked.
His son blinked, shocked, turned on his Harvesters, and left. They heard his boots tromp down the alley.
Teague grabbed a ragged canvas tarp and was about to stuff it back into the hole.
“Stop,” Hiram said.
“Why?” Teague asked. Then he knew. “You’re probably right, but I hate you, Church Man. How could I not?”
“You pulled a gun on me, Teague,” Hiram returned. “If anyone has the right to hate, it’s me. But I forgive you. You weren’t in your right mind.”
“Just one of the dangers of drink.” Teague slumped down on his mattress, his head against the wall. He shoved his knuckles into his eye sockets and sat there. He didn’t offer an apology.
When Michael returned, he carried three big pieces of yellow cake, dotted with dried currants, all on a single white plate. “Mrs. Chenoweth said she apologizes for the dried fruit, and she could only use half as much saffron as she usually does, but it should be tasty.”
“We won’t know,” Hiram said. “Light the candle, Michael.”
“What’s going on, Pap? Why the pickax home decorating?” His son’s dark eyes were wide with wonder.
“Long story. Maybe Mr. Teague would like to tell it.”
The Cornish man didn’t move nor make a sound.
Michael lit the candle, and Hiram gave him the shotgun to hold. Just in case.
Hiram’s life was full of tasks he didn’t enjoy, and being a cunning man, he often had to do things that terrified him. And yet, his faith made him strong and steadied his hand.
The railroad tie was about three feet below the floorboards. Hiram had Michael hold the candle aloft, so he could see, but still, down that hole, that lost part of the mine, was a thick, impenetrable darkness. And that knacker . . . that bucca . . . that thing . . . wasn’t of this world. Its ways were not the ways of man. It might have wanted to scare Teague, or to laugh at him, or, as Hiram thought, it was warning the man that his boy was gone.
Hiram gripped the floorboard with his left hand. He held the plate with his right. And he eased himself down into the hole and set that plate of cake onto the beam. All the while, the darkness yawned beneath him. He didn’t want to see the bucca, its dusty bristling beard, its diamond eyes, its piecemeal overalls. He didn’t want to see an inch of its hairy green flesh again. And he didn’t want that thing yanking him down into the lost mine shaft, maybe with another dozen of the tommyknockers. Their beards would split to show mouths full of jagged black teeth. And he would be eaten.
It was just his mind playing tricks on him.
He settled the plate on the beam.
He lifted himself up. Again, the candle was extinguished. Whispers from below. Rustling from below. And they waited.
Michael swallowed. “What’s down there, Dad?”
It was Teague that spoke. “It’s the bucca, spriggan squall, comes to cry for ill and for all. In the rocks where the devil does burn, give it the tezan, tezan saffern. Me own father sang that to me when I was wee.”
“What that’s again?” Michael asked, an impish smile on his face. “I’m pretty sure some of those words weren’t English. What are we dealing with?”
“The tommyknockers, child,” Teague said. He dropped his hands to the mattress. “The cake will show them my gratitude, and they won’t plague me with any mischief. Your goddamn father thinks he’s doing me a goddamn favor.”
Hiram couldn’t but grin. “At least the tommyknocker gets to eat a bit of tezan saffern.”
Michael re-lit the candle. The plate was empty. The knacker was gone.
Hiram took the shotgun, broke open the action, and dumped both shells onto the floor. “Michael, if you could give that woman back her plate, I’d appreciate it. Then wait in the truck. Mr. Teague and I are about finished.”
Mercifully, Michael didn’t fight him.
With his son gone, Hiram went to Teague. The Cornish man stood gazing down into the dark pit, his pale green eyes filled with equal parts rage and sorrow. He’d stuffed the hole full again, he’d repair the floor, and he wouldn’t feed the knackers again. Hiram could see it all in the man’s face. Teague wanted to continue his seven-year long dance with the monster.
Hiram gripped the man’s arm. “Your son has found peace, Mr. Teague, but your wife has not. It’s why the shack is cold. It’s why the ground is always wet. I think whatever she needs, she needs it from you. Perhaps your sobriety. Perhaps your forgiveness. Perhaps the love you never gave her in life. I think only you can help her.”
“She can burn in hell,” Teague growled into his face. “Leave now, Church Man. And don’t come back. You robbed me of my son. My drinking is my own business. Not yours. And not that green devil who likes saffron cake.”
Hiram let go and stepped back.
Teague, red-faced, screamed at him. “No one can help me! No one can help me!”
Hiram shivered, remembering that Teague’s dead wife had mouthed those same words to him.
Hiram then saw, he’d failed. This man wasn’t going to change. And now, when he heard the knocks, he wouldn’t think of his son. Now he knew those ghostly whispers were not his son speaking to him from beyond the grave.
Hiram turned and left, his heart hurting.
Back in the truck, Michael sat behind the while. “So you saved that man from the monsters under his shack with cake? Before you answer, I want you to know, I fully support us starting a bakery that fights evil.”
His son could always make Hiram smile. He didn’t answer his son’s question. Because Hiram hadn’t saved anyone.
He’d done his duty, though, and he’d gone to Latuda to confront the drunk man, and that was the end of it. He didn’t dream of Latuda’s lady in white for a long time.
Months later, Hiram read in the Helper Journal about the death of Austol Teague. Reports were, that he lit his own shack on fire before putting his shotgun in his mouth—miners saw flames, and then they heard the gunshot. Hiram had to wonder if that fire reached down into that hidden mineshaft.
That night, he dreamed of the lady in white, one final time.
He now knew why her hair was white, that was the frost of covering her. And he knew why her fingernails had been ripped from her hands.
Lowenna Teague’s ghost stood in a white gown of snow, the same snow that killed her and her son. His Saturn ring told Hiram that the avalanche had tumbled Branek’s body down into a tangle of junipers. When the snow melted, the coyotes claimed the body.
The woman in white stood in her frosty gown, in the smoking ruins of the shack, where it would always be cold, where the ground would always be wet.
He saw her white tongue against her yellow teeth. She saw her chapped lips mouth words. No one can help me.
Hiram heard her husband, Austol Teague, scream the words her lips formed.
No one can help me!
Hiram was jerked awake, in his bed, in his farmhouse, heart pounding and drenched in sweat. He grabbed his Saturn ring, trying to clear his mind of the spectral figure and his ears of that dead man’s shriek. One killed in an avalanche but unable to let go of her sorrow. One dead by suicide. Whatever the lady in white had wanted from her husband, she’d never get it.
How long would the lady in white haunt Latuda?
Hiram prayed for both the husband and the wife. But strangely enough, his thoughts turned to the tommyknocker. He found himself sincerely hoping that the thing in the mineshaft had enjoyed its saffron cake. And that it might find other, more willing people to help.
Hiram Woolley would endeavor to do the same.
Copyright © 2021 by Aaron Michael Ritchey
This story takes place within the world of novels The Cunning Man and February’s The Jupiter Knife by D.J. Butler, creator of the Witchy War saga, and Aaron Michael Ritchey. For twenty years, through twelve novels, Aaron Ritchey has stood at the mountain pass of Thermopylae and has surveyed the Persian army of rejection, failure and death and yet he continues to write! When he’s not battling Persians, you can find him supporting anesthesiology software, bicycling, or being swept away by the raw female power living in his house (via two daughters). He is a Dragon Award finalist. His web site is here.