First Kings and Other Stories
  Fiction by Ted Morrissey
    First Kings
  The Widow’s Son (page 1) (page 2)
  About the Author  |  |  Winter 2020 Fiction Issue

First Kings

The line between white sky and snow was a ghostly tracing along the horizon. Bitty blocked the icy specks pricking at her eyes as she tried to gain her bearings. It should’ve been a short walk to the Houndstooths’ farm, less than three miles, but she’d lost her way, as Papa and Bobby would’ve predicted, Bitty being a girl and little bitty at that. But Mama said go, her voice strange with pain and panic. Bitty tried to block out the bloody bedsheet Mama held between her legs. She tried to think of the cry and cuddle of a new baby, and Mama’s relief if she could bring Mrs. Houndstooth to her bedside.

The white horizon was no help, nor was the sunless sky. She tightened the scarf around her neck and chin, the wool scratching at her chapped lips, and tugged her loose, hand-me-down skully past her ears. Then she dug her mittened hands deeper into her coat pockets and set off again in a direction she prayed was right. Please, God, let the Houndstooths’ high chimney appear and let Mrs. Houndstooth be home, or at the Johnsons’ where Papa and Bobby went in hopes of retrieving her, for Mrs. Johnson was due before Mama. Papa and Bobby had to bet, and they bet there. They took the wagon and Old Psalter, also betting Old Psalt’s horse sense would keep him to the road no person had seen since the storm. If Mrs. Houndstooth wasn’t with Mrs. Johnson they would go on to town for Doc Higgins, even though he’d only delivered one or two babies in as long as anyone could remember, said Papa, as he was working his way into his coat. Bitty was helping him because Papa’s left arm had been hanging at his side more and more useless since September, a fact he would hide from Doc Higgins if he could. Papa didn’t care for Doc Higgins because he said wherever Doc went Mr. Michaels was sure to follow—once a body reached a certain age, he added, not wanting to worry Bitty in case she had to see Doc sometime. She knew what Papa was up to. She pictured Mr. Michaels in his stovepipe hat driving the black cart pulled by a painted gray mare.

Bitty hitched at the straps of the dungarees beneath her coat. They were Bobby’s, outgrown a decade before. When Mama told her to go to the Houndstooth farm, Bitty tossed her frock in the corner of the washroom and pulled on Bobby’s old overalls, which hung from a peg near the wringer. Mama’s voice said hurry. Bitty fretted about getting out of the dungarees fast enough. For a day or two she’d felt the ache that meant the blood was coming, like an unwelcome relation. It’d snowed on Thanksgiving, two months ago, and she’d made an angel by the henhouse, just finished with the morning’s gathering. She was lying in the new snow when she felt the warm rush for the first time. She bolted to her feet and saw the crimson stain, stark in the snow, where the angel’s private place would be. In the night, something dug the angel into a monstrous form which froze solid. Its claws had also left long trails on the henhouse door where it’d stood on its hind legs calculating entry like a human thief.

Bitty surveyed the horizon again. A dark shape showed faintly against the blankness. Could it be the Houndstooths’ chimney rising above the crest? There was no other point of note anywhere in the white, so Bitty began trudging toward the indistinct shape. The snow was over her knees.

Wind-driven pellets bit at her eyes, so she kept her gaze down and shielded her face with her hand, her fingers numb inside the mitten. When she looked up to check her progress, instead of finding the landmark closer and more distinct, it had disappeared, leaving only the white-on-white play of ground and sky.

Bitty stopped. She sensed how tired her legs were. Between the depth of the snow and the inclination of the land she’d been climbing, her legs trembled with exhaustion. Her stomach was empty too. She’d only had a bite of egg when she saw Mama struggle toward the dayroom, almost collapsing before Bitty could reach her. Mama steadied herself against the wall with one hand and grasped her baby-swollen belly with the other.

Bitty searched for the dark shape. She shifted her vision to the right and saw the nebulous black form. She could not have strayed so far. It must’ve moved. She couldn’t say what it was—the blowing snow disrupted her vision—but she could say what it was not, and it wasn’t the top of a chimney, nor any squared-off manmade structure.

She thought of the specter of Plague who had haunted her nightmares and the nightmares of all the children, she imagined, and all the adults when they were children and maybe some still. She understood Plague was only a representation, a stand-in for death, yet also believed him a real thing too: a crowlike being, black-feathered and monstrous in his uncaring cruelty. Bitty stared at the figure, her heart quickening, nestled in its layers of clothing and her childish bosom, thin of flesh and avian of bone itself. The story said Plague had preyed on them since the arrival of the First Families, long ago. Perhaps he was an angry spirit left behind by the savage people who lived on the land before they arrived, one of their heathen idols, abandoned and brimming with malice.

She blinked against the snow, and when she looked again the figure was gone. There was only an echo space in her memory where it stood a moment before.

Though the figure of Plague was wholly unwelcome, a break in the unbroken white was some relief, so she continued up the snowy hill, one heavy step after another. When Bitty reached the crest, wind hit her afresh, icy and indifferent. There were marks in the snow where something had stood, likely watching her, but they were quickly being undone by the cutting wind. It was not her imagination, then, or a trick of the storm-scattered light. The disappearing disruptions in the snow only hinted at where the watcher may have gone.

From her vantage point Bitty could see the distant shape of Hollis Woods. She’d walked beyond the Houndstooths’ farm. She thought of how long she’d been gone and hoped that Papa had been able to find Mrs. Houndstooth, who’d delivered Bitty. In fact, it was Emma Houndstooth who’d said Elizabeth is so small instead of Betty you should call her Little Bitty. Grandpa never called her anything else, until last summer when he called her Liesl, a favorite cousin when he was a boy, said Mama. She died young, a ruptured appendix or something like that. Every so often he’d call Bitty Liesl, and she didn’t bother to correct him because, for a moment, there’d be the sound of carefree summertime in his voice. When Bitty left to find Mrs. Houndstooth, Grandpa was the only one at home with Mama. He was sitting in the corner of the kitchen reading an old almanac, no longer certain what was past and what was prediction, no longer caring.

Bitty shivered, which made her pains even sharper.

The Whittle farm abutted the woods, and the Whittles and the Houndstooths were neighbors—she thought that was true: Mr. Whittle and Mr. Houndstooth seemed neighborly in church. Then again, every family acted the part of liking one another—but sometimes it was only acting. Papa always shook Mr. Bishop’s hand and asked how business was but on the way home he’d complain to Mama about Mr. Bishop’s prices, once or twice calling him a cutthroat. Mama would shush him to calm him and also so she and Bobby wouldn’t hear. Bobby would be looking at his Bible picture-book or watching the tracks the wagon wheels cut in the dust or mud or snow and not hearing anything.

If nothing else, the way toward the woods was downhill, so the going easier. Bitty’s boots were wet and her toes numb. It wasn’t a good idea to stay still too long. She began walking toward the wooded stretch, lifting her tired legs high in the heavy, ambivalent snow.

Hollis Woods seemed nearer from her previous viewing point. After a while she turned to guess how far she’d come, and there again was the black figure. The wind blurred Bitty’s eyes, and the figure wavered, like an unsubstantial being, or as a mirage does, according to the old geography book she enjoyed reading.

It appeared to rise up, as Plague was said to do before extending his terrible wings, the shadows of which fell across the doors of the stricken. Bitty turned and fled toward the woods. It was only in desperation that Bitty sought the forest, for its edge normally marked the boundary between the world of safety and world of peril, between light and dark—and while some traveled the woods by day, hunters mostly, only those who felt its darkness in their heart would tread its secret paths by night. Bitty understood the woods’ essence because she’d been taught it, though she could not yet articulate their menace much beyond bad things lived there, dangerous things, perhaps even the devil himself.

Bitty stopped and crouched behind a birch trunk a few yards into Hollis Woods. Her lungs labored in the cold air. The trees partly blocked the wind. Dead leaves, which had refused to fall from their catatonic limbs, shook and sounded like the paper pennants folks waved during the Founders’ parade, the event which led everyone to the square to watch the Passion. Each summer the play retold the story of the First Families and the ancient Plague who preyed on them, especially the children. Crowlike Plague was a character in the Passion. He wasn’t real of course, just a costumed father playing Plague, but he was real enough to visit Bitty’s dreams.

She calmed her breathing, which made clearer the rustling leaves. She was distracted for a moment by her woman-pain and she missed the time just three months before when she was still a little girl, and Mama didn’t have to teach her how to fold and pin the cloth and what to do with the bloodied ones, how to transport them from the privy, and how to clean them and put them back in the special basket, Mama’s special basket with the wooden lid, in the corner of the privy, now Mama and Bitty’s special basket, and she missed Bobby teasing her about other things besides her being a woman now, and the way Papa used to treat her, hugging her tight, but now she was like a stranger in the house. Her visitor changed her into a visitor too.

She looked beyond the trees and there was nothing except the endless white. Part of Bitty’s discomfort was the need to spend a penny, as Grandpa called it. She looked deeper into the woods for a private spot. Getting shed of her coat and overalls and boots and underthings would be quite a job but there was no help for it. She searched for a place. Footing was difficult even though the snow wasn’t as deep in the woods. Fallen leaves and twigs crunched or snapped beneath the cover of snow with each step.

Bitty stopped and listened keenly for anything else in the woods. She moved on. Soon a new noise came to her, and it took Bitty a moment to recognize it as water. There was a slight downward slope before coming to the creek, Peach Creek, it must be. Its water ran haltingly beneath and between outcroppings of ice. She thought of other places where she knew the Peach to flow. If she could follow it she’d come to somewhere familiar, somewhere she could regain her bearings. But the creek twisted through difficult places in both directions. Besides, what if it wasn’t the Peach? It was the only creek she knew and she didn’t recall anyone ever speaking of another. It was possible though.

The sun would set in a few hours, three? And being deeper in Hollis Woods in the dark, in the cold was out of the question.

But here, in the moment, Bitty at least could see to her most pressing needs. She thought of poor Mama and the baby. She’d failed them but surely help had come from somewhere. She imagined the new baby curled at Mama’s breast, like the portrait of the Madonna in Bobby’s picture-book. That must be the scene she would find when she made her way home. Papa and Bobby must already be out looking for her, unless the worst had happened, and it was so terrible, so tragic no one could think of anything else. Mama would’ve been glad her Bitty wasn’t home to experience it firsthand. Mama knew about losing babies: first Bobby’s twin brother, and then the baby who’d died so long ago Bitty remembered only fragments: Christmastime colors being replaced by monochrome fabrics of mourning, sadness lying everywhere, and Mama’s quiet crying in church when they sang of the herald angels. Bitty remembered Mr. Michaels’s tall hat on the kitchen table, a strange thing out of place.

She tried to ignore these darker thoughts as she undressed, laying her things on a rock she’d cleared of snow. She pulled off Bobby’s outgrown dungarees. Her skin was scarlet and numb to the touch, except her kneecaps were a yellow-white, reminding her of eggs fried in butter. At least, with the numbness, her legs didn’t feel the cold. She lowered her knicks, and her worries were justified. She’d bled onto Mama’s rag, not a lot—perhaps she could refold it and use it further. She must.

She squatted as near the edge of the Peach as she dare—that at least was a relief. When she finished she noted the drops of scarlet in the snow. She recalled the story by the strange author that Papa loved, the one about the red death, which in turn made her remember the author’s menacing black bird, and that recalled black-feathered Plague and the fact she was in these haunted woods, alone, just like a woebegone girl in a fairy tale.

Her immediate problem overcome, Bitty went about refolding and pinning Mama’s cloth. Her fingers were clumsy with cold, and she got blood on them, dark and clotted. She wanted to wash her hands in the creek. Instead she wiped them in the snow, leaving a rose-pink mark.

She believed she heard strange noises. Were there wolves in Hollis Woods? The recollection of fairy stories awoke all sorts of disquieting possibilities. She thought of the Hollis children who, decades before, wandered one by one into the unnamed woods until all five were gone, never heard from again. It was a favorite fireside story elder folks liked to recount on winter nights. She thought of the creature that tried to get into the henhouse, leaving the tally of its claws on the door.

Bitty dressed quickly, shivering, then continued on her way. She tried to stay within the cover of the woods but in view of the forest line. The going proved too difficult, so she left the wincing limbs to walk along the edge of the forest.

There was no question she was hopelessly lost. She let loose a single involuntary sob.

She peered up the rise desperate to locate some landmark. Her eyes were watery from the cold and her near crying—and she saw the black figure rushing toward her in an opaque blur! Bitty bounded into the woods, crashing through the snow and leaves and fallen branches, only stopping when she came to the ice-stifled Peach, too wide and too treacherous to cross. Panicked, Bitty looked back and forth, weighing the paths along the creek in both directions.

Before she could decide, a horrific bellowing began, a curdling torrent of pain and outrage—somewhere behind her, from the direction she’d run in terror.

She turned in circles, in her terror, like a compass needle jerking from one point to another, stepping to east, to north, west, south, then again. The terrible sound continued, eclipsing every other except the pounding of her pulse.

The intensity of the bawling fell a degree or two, enough that Bitty could clear her thoughts and, she believed, recognize its source as something of this world. Now, instead of fleeing it, she cautiously crept toward it.

Between the trunks of trees she saw the black thing, stationary but moving in place. Her panic all but subsided: it was a black dog, a big shepherd. When he sensed Bitty, he ceased his bellowing in distress, instead panting and whimpering. Bitty noticed the blood in the snow before she saw the trap biting into the dog’s front leg.

The shepherd panted hard and watched Bitty with moist, piercing eyes. Bitty had been carefully moving forward, and she was just a few yards away. A heavy chain secured to a tree tethered the dog within a tight circle. He was no longer trying to get away, to get free. Resigned to his situation he balanced on three legs, watching Bitty. The dog’s coat was shiny. He was young, at the peak of his strength—something in the world restraining him must’ve been as bewildering as it was frightening, as it was maddening.

Bitty wanted to help, except she was wary: he was in distress, and the powerful shepherd was at least her size, likely heavier. There was no telling how he’d react if she got close enough to examine the trap. On the farm, she’d learned to respect the caprices of an animal that was ill or injured.

The helplessness of the trapped shepherd amplified her own frustrations and fears, and for the first time since leaving Mama’s side tears began rolling down her cheeks. She wiped them away with the backs of her mittens.

We’re a sad pair, she said to the dog, who shifted his gaze to see her even more piercingly. He continued to pant and make a low whining noise, which would travel up the register as if it would erupt into a full-throated howl, but then travel down and begin again, in perfectly measured rhythm and repetition.

It seems hopeless, said Bitty, but just standing here won’t do anything for either of us. I’ll try to fetch someone for you. As Bitty turned away the dog began whimpering more intensely. I’m sorry, she said. There’s no help for it.

She picked her way between trees in what she hoped was the shortest route to exiting the woods. Already the light had begun to take on the quality of twilight—the air carried a shade of metallic blue—even though, beyond Hollis Woods, there must be an hour or two before sundown.

Bitty halted. On the ground, in the snow, were three black feathers, glossy in their darkness, arranged almost in a perfect triangle. They were too large to belong to a crow or a raven, and too black to be a turkey’s or turkey-vulture’s, and still too large.

She looked around her, everywhere, and was utterly alone. She did see the way out of the woods, though, and rushed ahead. Her legs were leaden, and she kept tripping on fallen branches or roots invisible beneath the snow. Before being clear of the woods she fell altogether, catching herself on a log. Bitty was at the edge of the forest. She looked up and the black figure was at the top of the snowy hill, standing, surveying everything.

Bitty stayed still, as still as the few trees which she hoped hid her from view. After a moment the figure began moving down the slope directly toward her. She blinked and saw the figure’s black feathers in the day’s dull, colorless light.

The bellow of the dog began anew, and Plague quickened his careful pace downhill. He had an alien, avian gait, almost hopping from foot to foot, truly like a crow, his feet wide and elongated. Bitty couldn’t move, frozen in the snow by the iciness of her fear.

Plague spoke, called out when he was only yards from her hiding place: Maximus! Max!

The words and the thing’s voice broke Bitty from her torpor and she sprang from her spot. She ran through the snow sensing death at her heel.

Elizabeth . . . Elizabeth Frye! Wait!

Death had come for her, not Mama and not the baby. For her. Relief . . . fear too, yes, but relief. She stopped and turned to her fate.

The black figure hadn’t moved. He was a tall shadow, rigid in the snow at the entrance to the woods. His feathers furled in the wind to form a kind of black nimbus behind his head.

He said again: Elizabeth? They call you Bitty—I see why.

The horror of Plague dissolved to become a man, a mere human man in a long black coat and wool cap. He’d been pulling a sled behind him by a rope tied around his waist. A rifle strap crossed his chest diagonally, the rifle against his back.

Your brother is out looking for you. He untied the rope and let it drop. He was wearing snowshoes. I’m Ralph, he said. His coat’s black hood billowed briefly in the wind.

That your dog? His leg’s in a trap. Bitty heard her voice as unfamiliar, as if a stranger’s.

The dog had ceased his distressed bellowing and was simply barking, loud and raucous. Perhaps he’d heard his master’s voice or sensed his presence in some other canine way.

Damn Holcomb and his damn traps. Pardon my language. He was loosening and stepping from the snowshoes. Bitty couldn’t say how old he was. He hadn’t shaved in days, and there was white in his beard. Come here, by the sled. Don’t go anywhere. Then he called to his dog: Max! Hang on boy! as he entered the woods.

There was a dark thing on the sled. As Bitty drew closer it became a turkey the man had killed. A trace of its blood had leaked onto a board of the sled and frozen there. Turkey, sled and blood were dusted with snow.

In a moment the man was back, struggling to carry the shepherd in his arms without falling. He set the dog next to the sled. I need to get both of you home. He was winded. You must be about frozen. Max balanced on his three sturdy legs.

Bitty didn’t respond but she realized she was shivering from the cold and the cramps in her special-belly.

The man looked up the hill. This part will be the hardest, he said. You think you can pull the sled up there? To the top?

I think. Bitty’s voice quavered.

If so, I can help Max, then you both can ride.

Exhaustion was overtaking Bitty. The man used a pocketknife to cut some of the rope from the sled’s lead. His buckskin mittens dangled at the ends of his coat sleeves while he tied the length of rope under Max’s chest, making a simple harness by which he could lift the dog enough to relieve some of the weight from his injured leg, and urge him up the slope.

He secured the snowshoes, and the three of them began the slow ascent. He told Bitty to follow in his and Max’s path. He continually glanced back to make sure she was keeping up.

The sled seemed almost her own weight, but it ran smoothly. Twice she switched hands to trade off the strain from one arm to the other. The man praised and encouraged her, half stooped over as he helped his big dog.

At the crest of the hill they halted long enough for the man to arrange Bitty’s sitting on the sled with the dog straddled between her legs. The sled had a low railing, which she held to with one hand while also hugging Max’s body with the other. The dog smelled strongly of his own musk, nearly feral in its potency. The man had tied the turkey’s feet together and hung the bird upside-down from the barrel of the rifle he carried on his back, a Savage like Papa’s, but newer. The bird’s eye, lustrous even in death, glared at her.

In this odd assemblage he began pulling them toward his farm. Bitty half dreamed of Mama and the baby, thought if they were alive or dead, thought of Papa’s dead arm and of Grandpa’s confusion, and Bobby’s slowness, and of Bobby’s twin who didn’t survive, and the other baby Mama lost so long ago Bitty barely remembered. She saw Mr. Michaels’s painted gray mare pulling the black cart. She opened her eyes at a sudden jolt, and for an instant believed it was Plague who drew her across the snowfields, until the black feathers reformed into a long black coat, and the beaked head, turned to her just then, became again a black cap salted with snow. She’d been saved from death by Death: the thought came and went as the phantom form of the man’s house materialized on the white horizon.


  “First Kings” first appeared in North American Review and was reprinted in Sequestrum. We have nominated “First Kings” for a 2021 Pushcart Prize.
© Ted Morrissey, 2020

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