Acock

The devil had come to Patrick twice on the Lord’s day. The third Sunday he arrived a little past noon in the farmyard, buckles on his shoes shining, white gold, the obsidian buttons on his jerkin like round eyes stolen from cave pools. He strolled to the fence like a dancer, purring to the goats. The goats in the field kicked their heels and twisted their necks, lolling their tongues and eyes.

Patrick didn’t rise from his stump. He had just finished slaughtering a chicken. At the sight of the devil again, he let go of the chicken, and with its beak chopping on the stump, the body went running back to the coop, blood shooting from its neck, its wings in disarray. The headless creature looked ready to fly if it could just find the sky.

The devil came to Patrick in a cloud of feathers, hat acock, sliding gracefully through their scattering like a buggy whip in crimson hose. He tipped his hat. “And a good day to you, Goodman Motherwell.”

Patrick pulled his handkerchief from his belt and wiped off his forearms. The chicken’s blood was already soaking into the tree stump.

“Your daughter, I hear, is abed with smallpox.” The devil made a tsking sound with his forked tongue behind his wooden teeth. “That will make her dowry a barren field, I fear. Wouldn’t you like to hear the sound of children in your halls before you die, Goodman?”

His fingers folded together, and then steepled. When he opened them again, the backs of his hands facing Patrick, four playing cards were laced in his fingers. On the back of each card was a scorch mark, but the suits and faces were turned in. “Would you prefer your daughter healthy and hale, with a fertile body and her husband-to-be of a changed heart, willing to court her again, willing to set foot once more on your farm? Wiling to be the father of your grandchildren?” The devil flashed his wooden smile. It was a strange slice of patience in his passionate face. “I’m finished with parlor tricks, Goodman, I promise. One of these cards will grant your desire with no string attached. The other three are minor inconveniences, but all four will see your daughter well again, and long-lived, and pure as untrammeled snow. You and I will be the only ones who know her benefactors, for they will be us two, and two can keep a secret, if one of them is me.”

He held the cards closer to Patrick. “Do you not love your daughter, Goodman?”

“Aye,” said Patrick. “And the God of my fathers.”

The devil nodded. “Of course. And did He not grant your fathers sons? Will your fathers’ lives and sacrifices be ended with you? I can hear Ruthie Motherwell’s breath, and I can hear her heart, and smell the sweat in her sicksheets. Tonight your children and your children’s children will live or die by your hand. Can you not see through your own stubbornness to aid them?”

“God punished the sons of Aaron for witchcraft,” said Patrick.

The devil fanned his cards. “It’s not witchcraft if neither of us is witches.”

Patrick stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket. He rose from his stump to go after the chicken. “I ain’t no gambler neither.”

He picked up the body by its feet and began to pluck the feathers. He crossed the yard with it, feathers flowing behind him in gusts of wind, showering the devil until he was gone. Inside, he butchered the bird, set the pieces in a broth simmering over the fire, and added fresh carrots and herbs.

When the soup was finished, he brought it to his daughter. He helped her sit up, which she did in pain, pale, her blonde hair slicked back on her forehead in dark clumps. He helped her drink, using a rag to wash her spotted face. He read to her from the Bible, and she fell asleep sitting up.

He lit a candle, and stayed with her through the night. In the morning he buried her, beside his wife, his son, and his father.

He buried his Bible too.

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