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Under the Black Sun
(First Edition)


(Extract © 1995 by Eric Harrington Woro)

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Chapter 1

The small country store survived the vicissitudes of the rural economy only because the grizzled proprietor and his wide-hipped wife had early on made the decision to stay open, no matter what financial losses they sustained. For tradition’s sake. Zach’s Market was nearly as old as the state of Arkansas itself, father teaching son inventory and pricing, and father and son again, and again. The people of the area—poor white trash who believed in God and segregation, and who viewed the annual visitation of tornadoes with the same reverence Levitical Jews gave to locusts arriving on the east wind—depended on Zach’s for their jerky and potatoes, their light bulbs and Christmas cards, their soft drinks and razor blades. You could get almost anything at Zach’s for a reasonable price. But more than that, you could loll at the lunch counter, sip lemonade under the lazy, creaking ceiling fan, hear the latest gossip, or stare vacant, with leaden eyelids, at the screened windows where slow flies buzzed.

“It's a scorcher, ain't it?” said Matthew, a man stout in blue overalls, wiping his forehead on the back of his sleeve.

“You got thet right,” said Agnes, Zachary's wife, as she filled a salt shaker from a dispenser. “S’posta be a hundert, ’s what I heard.”

“Too damned hot fer June.” This from Judy, a hairdresser at the salon next door.

“Stop yer swearin’,” said her husband Bill, a fat farmer with orange hair in tight curls close to his big round head.

“Lea’ me be. William.”

Another couple entered the conversation.

“Hit’s hot as hail.”

“Deed it is.”

The Tisdall boy appeared at the screen door, hesitated, scanned the store from where he stood.

“Come on in, Austin,” said Zachary kindly.

The boy pulled open the door and came inside, bowing nervously and nodding like a coolie. The screen door slammed behind him and he jumped forward, startled. Everyone at the counter snickered and turned back to their lemonade and their gossip. “I'll be up here when you’re ready.”

“Thanks, Zachary,” Austin replied.

Austin Tisdall was a tall, gangling 17-year-old who lived on the edge of town in a small trailer park with his waspish mother and a small dog who suffered from a chronic skin condition the veterinarian had diagnosed as mange. Sadie Tisdall also suffered from a chronic skin condition her doctor had diagnosed as eczema. She applied salve every day, but the eczema never went away. She gave up on the dog after the first tube of expensive medicinal cream ran out. She was on welfare and it was hard enough taking care of the boy. Never mind the dog.

Sadie never told Austin about his father, but the boy grew up with elaborate compensations in his imaginings, chief of which was the local Pentecostal church, which offered solace to the disconsolate and salvation to the penitent. Austin knew God was his father, and since he was punished whenever he asked about his biological origins, he one day ceased to question the matter and gave himself over fully to his living God. He never worried about the other again.

But he did worry about pleasing his mother, because her punishments were so severe and so unforgiving. Before he was even three, Sadie would lock him in the small closet of their small house up north, before they moved to Arkansas, and would leave him there for the entire night, ignoring his piteous cries for release. When sometimes with uncharacteristic fury he beat on the walls of his tiny prison, she only punished him more severely. She tied him with leather restraints and beat him with a switch until the raised welts on his back and arms burst and bled, and he was thrust back into the closet, to stay there through the night. If he screamed, she only gagged him and beat him harder. He learned, eventually.

You might think Sadie Tisdall’s draconian tactics would bring about the most terrible consequences—might warp the child’s character, for instance, or thrust him into a hellish dementia from which there was no escape. But Austin, all bets to the contrary, was a model child: attendant to his mother’s needs, compliant, self-abnegatory; exhibiting, in fact, all the model virtues: kindness, patience, goodness, gentleness, self-control. It appeared that Sadie’s philosophy of child-rearing paid off, because after only a few years of difficulty in the beginning, Austin became a perfect child. She was happy with him, and he with her. He did have a few odd habits, but these were of little consequence. He liked to play a funny game, for example, in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom, in which he would descend lower and lower until his image disappeared. Then he would cry out with pleasure and clap his hands together, and laugh with tearful eyes; and ascending again, he would start over with his image intact, and play it once more. Sadie remembered the game from years ago, she remembered how he would play it when he was two or three, how cute he was doing his disappearing act. She thought it a little odd that he continued to play the game even in his teens, but by then it was a kind of tradition, and she always laughed easily as he went through his routine—the way he looked at her when the game was finished—his round, expectant eyes seeking approval. She would pat him on the back and he got so excited, and then they'd play again and it might tax her patience, but he was her baby. They had fun together.

She had thought it would come from the dog. The fun, that is. She hoped that when she brought it back from the pound it would display some of the happy, happy personality you’d expect from dogs rescued from the pound. But Andy was a morose thing, he lived forever moping about. So in a way, she preferred her son’s company. Austin’s games were a bit bizarre but she liked the way they enlivened the house, kept them close in their laughter and their funny time.

That was the phrase he used when he was small, when was it, so long ago: he called it “funny time,” as he laughed and played before her mirror, and pointed, and laughed again. “Funny time.” She thought so, too. And their funny time was also the only time she ever touched him. Sadie was not especially bright, but she did grasp some relation between her touching him and his appearing and disappearing in the mirror. She could tell from his squeals and grunts of joy that when she touched him she was confirming something in him, something about his physical reality, something about his body. She was willing to do that in their funny time. Otherwise she hadn’t any use for it. She never played with him or held him when he was a baby. The whole process of child-bearing was a vulgar thing, especially the way this one got started, and she had even less taste for the discipline of child-rearing. She would have gotten rid of him in the same way that she got rid of his older brother, but there was no one else to raise him. So she condescended and changed his diaper every once in awhile, at least every other day. But she wouldn’t put herself out, and she certainly never breast-fed him, preferring the simple and less vulgar solution of leaving a bottle in his crib and shutting him up in the next room with the door closed, so that she would not have to listen to his infernal crying. He'd have to fend for himself when he got older, so there was no point in spoiling him now.

Austin seemed healthy and no one who saw him suspected anything untoward in his upbringing. He did have fret lines etched into his forehead by the age of five, and sometimes Sadie would hear the remark that he looked “so mature” for his age. But neighbors were interested in business that was none of their own, and she paid no heed to anything they said.

“Need any help?” said Zachary, watching the boy from behind the counter.

“No, thank you,” said Austin.

“Let me know.”

“Yes sir, I will.”

He knew they were watching him. He cultivated his ingratiating mask for the very purpose of deflecting suspicion—and all interest. He could not stand the questions, the small talk. Do you like baseball? they would ask. How’s your mother? He hated such questions. Any damage to yer trailer from that twister? He would smile and pretend to be shy, kindly, inward. The truth was that he hated them because he knew they wanted to expose him. They wanted to invade his private space, fix him with their judgmental gaze. They wanted to steal his brains.

It would never happen. He was smarter than them. He knew what they were up to. All he had to do was put on a little act. It was so easy. He heard what they said about him when he blushed. He’s such a shy kid, they would say. Nothin’ wrong with that. His mother done raised him right. Instead of grow’d up with an attitude. He liked to overhear such comments. Poor boy, never even knew his father. He especially liked that one. Because he knew God better than all of them knew their own fathers. And God had a special purpose in mind for him.

But that purpose would not be revealed until it was time. And it was not yet time.

Now that Zachary and the other folk had turned back to themselves, he picked up a small crèche encased in glass in the gift section in the back, and saw with delight, when he turned it over, the scene bedazzled with falling snow. There was Jesus in the manger, God the baby, and outside the stable figures crowded the door under the falling snow. They were in kingly regalia, and carried gifts, and their faces shone bright in the starlight. Austin shot a glance across the room and, seeing them all occupied, slipped the globe into a pocket of his blue overalls. He moved quietly to another section of the store.

In this way, he managed to lift half-a-dozen items from the shelves and spirit them away in his baggy overalls, while carrying a loaf of bread and a carton of milk openly for everyone to see. He loved the way the items disappeared into his pockets. They were so visible, so palpable, so present—and then they were gone! It was a magic he loved.

He could hear them whispering in their hillbilly English. He knew they were talking about him, but only caught snatches of their secret calumny. “Hit’s a damned shame,” said one. “They coulda did it theirself,” said another. “But he thanks Gawd for ever-thang. I seen him in church.” Then they seemed to be arguing some point. One of them said again: “Hit’s a damned shame. Him groin up thataway.”

While they argued, he pilfered. He maintained his bashful, unassuming manner, kept low under his straw hat, and systematically lined his pockets with as many provisions as he could. At the cash register, Zachary asked him about his mother but otherwise showed no special interest or suspicion. Austin paid for the bread and milk while Zachary packed them into a bag, but said nothing.

He left the store pleased. Soon he came to the church where he had given himself up to the Lord. It was a small meeting room with a high steeple and no windows. On the front door was a humble sign: Bethany Prayer House. Austin sat at the picnic table on the strip of lawn beside the church. He put down the bread and milk and emptied his pockets onto the table. He liked the snowglobe most of all, but he had also got a Swiss Army knife, a cigarette lighter, a box of screws, a small glass-and-clip picture frame, a spool of white thread, a portable chess set, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a can of tuna fish and a bag of colored balloons. He put on the sunglasses, noticed the price tag hanging from the small plastic twist, took them off and reached for the Swiss knife. He found the wee scissors inside the knife and used them to remove the price tag from the glasses. He put the tag in the brown paper bag from the store, folded it neatly and placed it in one corner of the table. He put on the sunglasses again and readjusted his straw hat on his head. He opened the box of screws and took out three of them, and using the screwdriver in the Army knife, drilled one screw into each remaining corner of the picnic table. He took three—a green, a yellow and a red—balloons and inflated them, tying off the end of each with a simple knot. Measuring off three strands of thread to the exact width of the table, he cut them from the spool using the scissors again, tied one to each balloon, and attached the ends of the threads to the screw heads in the three corners of the picnic table. The balloons floated up and the brown bag was in the fourth corner. Austin stood and examined the scene. He decided against the arrangement of the balloons, took the red and the green ones from their bases and switched them. Took another look, stepping back from the table, walking around it twice. Felt tempted to assess the scene without sunglasses, and started to remove them; then shook his head vehemently and cried: “No! Not fair!” and put them back. Eyeing the table carefully, as if for the first time, he began to nod and say, with some earnestness: “Yes! Yes!”

It was exciting. He wiped his brow and put the straw boater back in place. He got his wallet from his back pocket and took from it a picture of Jesus he had got from the Evangel Book Store in town. It fit perfectly into the frame from Zach’s, but he couldn’t see it clearly because of the price stickered on the glass. He removed the label and gum with a few deft swipes of his thumbnail, and centered the picture of Jesus between the green and yellow balloons. The can opener on the knife sufficed to open the tuna fish; he spread it between two pieces of bread. When the sandwich was ready, he put it to one side, next to the carton of milk, and bowed his head to pray.

“Father in heaven,” he said, “I thank you for this humble meal which you have provided even according to your Word, where you have promised that I am worth far more than the birds of the air, which neither sow nor reap, and yet you feed them according to your bountiful grace. That I am worth far more than the lilies of the field, which neither toil nor spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed as these. I shall not weary you with the prayer of the Gentiles, my Lord, I shall not be anxious and cry: ‘What shall I eat?’ or ‘What shall I drink?’ No, I have sought first the kingdom of your righteousness, and according to your promises now in humble submission to your endless grace, I thank you for this food and pray that you bless it to the health of my body, forever and ever. Amen.”

He crossed himself like a Catholic, opened his eyes, tipped the glass globe so that snow began to fall again. He picked up the sandwich and ate, not taking his eyes off Jesus in front of him. Jesus, Lamb of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. The portrait was dark through the sunglasses he wore; dark and true.

“I pray, oh Lord,” he continued suddenly, “that you witness my zeal and my love, that with these glasses I might see less, in order that I might see more. Darken my eyes so that my vision might be greater. Even as your precious Lamb humbled Himself that He might be exalted, even so, dearest Lord, do I ask you to blind me that I might see. Make me deaf that I might hear, and empty, so that I might be full.”

He crossed himself again and finished his sandwich, and the carton of milk. He swept the crumbs into his trash bag and opened up the portable chess set. He set up the pieces on their original squares and, reaching for the cigarette lighter, smiled as he removed it from its plastic packaging. It was black. He held it in his left hand and flicked it on from time to time, moving the pieces around with his right. “Mikhail Tal,” he murmured in a tone of respect. “The greatest.” He played through the moves of some of Tal’s games, which he knew by heart. “Development,” he said, placing the Bishop on an aggressive square. “Safety of the king,” he said, castling. “Centralization,” bringing his Rooks to the center files. “Space,” thrusting his queenside pawns forward. “Tempo,” defending and attacking simultaneously. “Sacrifice!” and he brought a Knight down crashing into the enemy position. The pieces scattered across the board and part of the picnic table. Austin looked up at the benign face of Jesus. “Forgive me, my Lord,” he said at once. “Is this but a foolish indulgence?” He gathered the pieces together, put them carefully back in place on the board, put the cover over the board, and set it aside.

He stared at the picture of Jesus. Sometimes he brought the lighter close to Jesus’s face and could see what appeared to be the flicker of the Holy Spirit in His countenance. He remembered the verse. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit,” he said, his expression severe. He crossed himself again.

After some further meditation, punctuated only by small explosions of flame from the lighter clutched in his hand, he gathered everything from the table and put it into a plastic bag he had in his back pocket. He popped and discarded the balloons, and found a place for the trash bag under the grate of an old barbecue behind the church. He set out for home. He passed by the local cemetery, one of his favorite quiet places since he had accepted Christ as his Savior. He went on. A thousand yards from the trailer park, he approached the barren sycamore. Found his spot, sat down next to it, and looked around to make sure no one was near.

“What the Lord has sealed up, can no man discover,” he intoned, digging the dirt out of the secret place. Soon he came to a plastic bag he had buried before, atop half-a-dozen others. He laid the new contraband in the hole, replaced the dirt and giggled as the bag disappeared from sight. Then, suddenly solemn, he tamped the ground with his foot. “It is sealed,” he said.

He lay back on the dry earth with his arms extended and stared up at the sky. It was cloudless and the sun blazed upon his face. From a distance came the yank-yank of nuthatches and the slow trill of juncos. He pulled down the brim of his hat, closed his eyes behind the shades, and drifted off to sleep.

In his dream, he had got control of the wheel of an old car and was driving backwards as fast as he could. Sadie sat next to him, screaming at him to stop, to drive in the proper manner. She was violent in her efforts to stop him, grabbing the steering wheel, kicking and pummelling him. She wore a gingham dress and had a yellow bow in her hair. He wore a dress identical to hers, and on his accelerator foot, he noted, was a garnet red pump with a stiletto heel. He rebuked his mother and pushed her away, and the scene changed and he sat at the controls of a rig crane on a drilling platform in shallow ocean water. On the rig were derrick and hoisting equipment, a draw-works shed, bulk storage tanks, a lifeboat and a small heliport. From the crane’s arm were suspended small cars or gondolas, as on a ferris wheel. These cars hung from different cables off the arm like pieces in a mobile. His mother was in one of the cars, still shouting and scolding as before, only now she was wearing an African dashiki of bright colors. He wore a surplice and clerical collar, and a tippet with symbolic decorations. He held a Bible in his left hand and ran the crane with his right. Other people were in the other cars—neighbors, townsfolk, people from his past. He pushed one of the levers and the cars began to swing wildly. The crane began to move and he was no longer on the offshore rig, but on a narrowing road with high walls on either side. The road was cratered and rocky, and the crane heaved on its wheels and the gondolas crashed into the walls on either side of him, again and again, and his mother and all the rest of the people were screaming. The scene from Austin's view was cuneiform, as if he were steering the crane into the tight end of a wedge; and at the far point, where the lines of perspective converged, was a dark culvert, a black hole leading underground to a terrifying unknown.

He pulled back on the lever and the scene again changed. He was naked now, walking slowly through an old-growth forest. Everywhere on the ground were sword ferns and oversized mushrooms of gorgeous colors. One in particular caught his eye: violet, darker than violet, a striking blackish purple. The cap was fully five inches across, the stem grooved and stalwart. He wanted to pluck it but dared not. He lay down to be next to it. All around him shoots and branches of salal, zigzagging at every node. He could see their tiniest details. Each influorescence was minutely hairy and sticky, and the berries a purplish black, the color of the mushroom. There was pipsissewa, too, with its sawtoothed, whorled leaves; creamy yellow deerfoot, its leaves brittle-delicate and faded; vine maple and Oregon grape beneath, leaves spiny and pointed at the tips, glowing crimson. And here and there huckleberry, straggly and sour, and fragrant twinflower, long leafy runners, scion of honeysuckle.

He awoke disoriented under the dry, dead sycamore branches overhead. He gasped, sat up with a start. His face was burning, the brim of his hat soaked in sweat. His back hurt and his left arm was numb. His pants were wet in his secret place. He stood, shook his arm until the blood returned. He turned again towards home.

Sadie was asleep in her easy chair; the television hummed softly before her. Austin took a seat on the sofa and waited. She had turned down the sound most of the way before she fell asleep, but he could hear a muted voice-over and saw the program had something to do with the celebration of science and the world of technology. He flipped through the channels, over and over. The changing images were kaleidoscopic and pulsed, hypnotically, like a strobe light. Eventually he returned to the original channel. A man with big white teeth was speaking into a microphone and pointing at some kind of offshore mining or drilling operation. Austin looked back at his mother.

He liked it when she slept in her chair. She never woke up, even when he made noise. He could talk to himself, or read aloud from his Bible, and she never stirred. He loved the anonymity. He could be himself, knowing he was invisible to her. The trailer was small and when she was awake he couldn’t get away from her unless they had their funny time together, or unless he went out. Sometimes she went out, and he liked that too. Lately he had been drawn to her closet when she was gone: he felt a strange and marvelous need to try on her clothes. He hadn’t done so yet, but he had taken off his shirt and held her brassiere in place and looked at himself in the mirror. There was a key—somewhere way in the back of his mind—but it eluded him. He never fastened the bra. Not yet, anyway. He had been curious about her panties, too, and had done the same with them, taking off his own pants first, in front of the mirror. But he had not actually put them on.

She was small and pinched, her face contorted, even in sleep, to an expression of tight displeasure. A frown line was graven between her eyebrows—or where they’d been before she had shaved them off and redone them with pencil—and her permed hair was brittle despite, or perhaps because of, frequent visits to her hairdresser. Austin had seen her earlier at Zach’s, the woman who did her hair. “She makes you look like a whore,” he said, moving closer to his mother. He was breathing on her face now. He examined her makeup, snarling in condemnation, but marveled at the magic of it, the magic of the disguise. He could smell it, the mascara and the eyeliner and the garish lipstick, and something sweet and nauseating in its hair. “Mother of harlots,” he rasped. He retrieved the lighter from his pocket, flicked it on and off close enough to melt her mascara, and peered in close. “I saw you in that African dress,” he said, accusingly. He could feel the small bursts of air from the stertorous breath on his face. “I saw you,” he repeated, standing up, flicking the lighter repeatedly in her face. He moved away slowly from her. “How is it that you think I didn't see you?” She continued her light snoring.

He turned away, gesturing to the crucified Jesus in his mind. “It thinks I didn't see it,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Is it invisible? Can it disappear behind a thick veneer of lipstick and mascara?” He laughed, moved over to the window, looked out. “I don't think so.” As he spoke, the gauze curtain enveloped his face, drawn by static. He recoiled from the weird feel of it.

Turning back to look at his mother, still speaking privately to the Lord. “It thinks I don't know.” Shaking his head again. “As if.”

Turn back to the curtain that veils his view. Bring the lighter up to it.

“As if.”


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