Page 16 of Dreadful Skin

The sticking point was bigger than Annie could have imagined, because Annie assumed that everyone she knew was human. To the best of her knowledge, she was not acquainted with any deviant monsters, and there were no unpredictable, bestial impulses lurking beneath the skins of her neighbors.


Human nature might be a constant thing of reliable wickedness, but the nature of the unnatural was something altogether different.


Or at least Eileen had always believed as much.


Tabitha came in to clear the table, and she asked a word with Annie in private. The madam excused herself and left Eileen alone with her thoughts and her questions that could not be asked aloud.


Perhaps she'd been wrong, after all—and the difference was not a difference at all, but exaggeration. After all, the beast, the wolf, Jack—the creatures wished to feed, they wished for power and strength. They wished for indulgence when indulgence was immoral, inappropriate, and criminal. It would be hard to argue that humanity displayed no such traits when uncorrupted by the inhuman.


It unnerved her deeply to wonder, but wonder she must.


How much of myself rises with the beast when it cries out for blood?


IV.


Leonard Dwyer arrived at six to retrieve Eileen as he'd promised, even though the prospect of visiting Red Annie's left him visibly troubled. He lingered in the lobby, torturing his brown hat in his hands until Eileen swept down the stairs. She was only a few minutes late—barely late at all, really—but the slight delay had caused him no end of embarrassment.


"I must beg your pardon," she told him. "I was having the most fascinating conversation with Tabitha. The blonde girl, do you know her? I'm sorry—I meant, do you know who I mean?"


"I know who she is, yes," he mumbled, ushering her out the door and down into the dirty, late-day heat. "I've seen her about town."


"Yes, she's an awfully nice girl, even considering. . .but she's a clever girl, too. I was hoping to convince her to join us for the meeting, but she declined, alas."


"Alas," he echoed without much remorse, but then reconsidered. "I suppose it would be a good thing for her to visit the meetings. After all, didn't Christ himself walk with the lepers and prostitutes?"


"He did indeed. He counted them among his best friends, and I knew you were too kind to turn her away if she was interested. But perhaps tomorrow. The meetings run through the weekend, don't they?"


"Oh yes—until Monday morning. That's when we'll pack up and move on."


"We," she held onto that word, considering it.


The streets were filling with people. It wasn't a tide, and it wasn't a flood, but it was a definite trickle—all feet padding along in the same direction, north out of town. In the distance, beyond the hearing of the rest of the pilgrims, Eileen detected music. She detected voices, and percussion in the form of clapping hands.


She listened harder, and thought she heard a pipe organ, the kind that went with carnivals, and possibly a stringed instrument—a guitar or a banjo, possibly a fiddle or two.


"Yes?" Leonard nudged her gently, wobbling the navy blue parasol Eileen held up over her head.


"I'm sorry?"


"I thought for a moment you were going to ask me something else."


Eileen shook her head to sharpen her thoughts. "How far is it to the camp?"


"Not a mile and a half. It's down by the river that runs north of town."


"A river?"


"More like a fat creek, if you've crossed the Mississippi—and I don't imagine you arrived from Ireland across Asia, so you must have crossed it at some point. Am I right?"


She smiled and bobbed her head. "Right as rain, Leonard. I came through New York, and rode much of the way south and west along the rivers. But what about you? How long have you been traveling with the camp?"


"A few months now," he confessed. "I must tell you, it has proved to be the great joy of my life. Reverend Aarons has changed me. He has saved me."


There was that name again, and here was a willing disciple. Eileen said the rest with care. "I'm looking forward to meeting him myself, or seeing him, at least. I've heard so much about him. I imagine you must know him quite well. You must trust him a great deal, to have left your home to follow him."


Leonard managed to nod vigorously and appear grave at the same time. "Oh yes, implicitly. He does great work—he's very devout. Intensely devout, like no one I've ever known before."


"Yes. His religious fervor is a thing to behold, or so I've heard."


"Ah." He slowed his pace a touch and watched the ground, as if he too were measuring out the caution he'd serve with his words. "You wish to ask me about the way he speaks in tongues."


She adjusted her grip on the parasol. "I hear he's prone to terrible fits, and that he appears almost to be possessed."


"By the Holy Spirit, he is possessed. I know, I know," he waved his hands in front of himself in a small gesture of helplessness. "I realize that it can appear strange to people accustomed to more sedate services, but it's the passion that is so compelling. The first time I saw the throes of the Spirit upon him, I was almost frightened. But now I understand, and it moves me. It inspires me."


"I see," she said, and she did.


"There have been places before where people were concerned about the services, but more often than not we find that the worshippers are swept up in the ceremony, and after a while, they join in without hesitation. It seems to be particularly effective. . .." he trailed off as his ears caught the first soft slappings of hands at the camp up the road.


Eileen finished for him. "On women."


"What?"


"It's particularly effective on women, isn't it? They most often find themselves the most moved, as you put it."


He nodded slowly. "They've been known to throw propriety to the wind and make a terrific commotion, but it's in the name of the Lord so of course their hearts and spirits are in the right place. But except for the reverend, it's usually the younger women who are most taken up in the moment. I'm not sure why."


Eileen could have hazarded a guess or two, but she didn't offer any.


After another few minutes of walking along the dry, brown road, they began to see the first signs of encampment—smatterings of tents, small groups of people lounging with families on blankets, shielding their eyes from the sun. The population increased in density as the larger tent appeared on the horizon. It was an enormous thing that might have hosted a circus somewhere else in the land. There must have been room for hundreds beneath it, and hundreds were filtering fast, wandering a slow and curious path to what shade and salvation the tent had to offer.


The music was louder now, fiddles and pipes and dozens of voices, raised up, singing out—calling the service to disorder.


Ropes and stakes held the tent taut, and open. Eileen folded the parasol and released her polite grip on Leonard's arm. "You have work to do, don't you dear?" she asked.


At first he looked confused, but then he agreed. "I do, yes. I need to see to the service, and assist the reverend. Please excuse me," he said. "And I hope you'll participate with an open heart."


"I'll do my very best," she assured him.


He looked over his shoulder once, then twice, before leaving her there.


She waved him on. She was fine—and she was far more worried for him than he needed to be for her.


In the back of the tent, around the edges, newcomers lurked. Many of the lurkers were families with small children, uncertain and anxious from the crowds and the noise. The people up front were singing and clapping together; an old standard about gathering at the river was coming to a close, and a faster tune was beginning.


Leading the service was a lovely young woman with caramel-colored hair tied in a modest bun. Her cheeks were dappled with freckles and her eyes were alight with the flush of exertion. The audience swayed with her, and sang with her, and watched her as charmed as any set of snakes.


Across the room, Eileen spied the back of Leonard's head and she noticed without surprise that he was watching the girl too—as spellbound as the rest, if not more. Eileen wondered how much of Leonard's own religious devotion was fueled by something more secular than the words of her song, her new song, faster. Her new song, the one that she used to lure the crowd closer to the hastily-constructed stage—she used it to call, siren-like, and her voice was a thing of beauty as it rose up over the crowd to fill the tent.


And Eileen listened too; she listened keenly and with better ears than those that surrounded her. She listened for an unnatural timbre, for coercion or command that didn't come from God, or from the throat of a pretty young woman with a face like an angel and hands that swayed, clapped, folded in prayer.


She didn't hear anything of the sort, save a hint of an accent that reminded her of Appalachia and the time she'd spent there. It was a softer thing, a different smoothing of the consonants than the sharper speech of the locals.


Leonard was working his way closer to the stage, and Eileen was satisfied that the girl up front was no more than she appeared to be—though she was certainly charismatic. And her song, the one she led after the river song, it was sung in rounds so that those who'd never heard it before could join as late as they liked and still make harmony.


By and by


When the morning comes


All the saints


Will be gathered as one


Trials dark


At every hand


We'll understand it better


By and by


It was percussive and seductive, with a rhythm like African voices—and Eileen thought perhaps it was a slave song, passed along and down and over the mountains. Songs pass so easily across rivers, and deserts, and decades. This one stirred Eileen in a primitive way, all the hands beating together like drums.


At the back of the tent there was disapproval. There were shaking heads and children being pulled away, back outside, by one hand or both.

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