h Lord,” sang a rich baritone, echoed by another dozen as the singers all hacked away at the sugarcane stalks in unison, feet sloshing through water as they made their way across the five miles of Sugar Lake. “Oh, sweet Lord…”
“Oh, sweet Lord…” the singers hummed.
“Oh, Lord help me now…” the man sang aloud, hacking at an unruly stalk with his machete as best he could, taking the severed stalks and placing them into a loosely woven sling, full of similar stalks. “I just need His strength Lord, to keep my back as strong as this here cane now.”
They all hack a little faster as the carriage, the master’s jet-black carriage with the weird drawing on the roof, came rolling down the path.
It rolls to a stop, the lone black stallion stomping impatiently at the driver’s reigns. The driver, a hulking brute of a man that always seemed to be dressed in clothes a size too small for him, climbed down from the bollock, and moved over to the door.
“Ya’ll stop and gather round now!” the driver called, his thick Russian accent and bullfrog voice echoing far and wide. They all immediately begin weaving their way through the stalks to walk up to the rise of dirt that served as a road between the Sugar Lake and the Rice Fields. The lead singer, a tall man with the body of Olympian soldier, honed from years of serving in Sugar Lake, stood in the forefront, arms crossed.
Everyone called him Billie, but nobody knew what name the white men had given him when they first had him. Whenever the Master wanted something done, they’d always call on Billie. He divided the labor between the hundred-odd slaves of the plantation, sending the younger girls and older men into the two fruits fields, while he sent the men to the Rice Fields and Sugar Lake, the two most dangerous tasks due to the constant dampness of your feet, and the constant threat of snakes and leeches.
Billie paid no mind to the leeches, as he knew his blood wasn’t his anyway. And he killed the snakes just to spare his brothers and sisters in chains the pain of a venom induced death, or worse, the searing lash of the whip for failing to pull in half your weight in crops a day.
Billie just tried to make sure that he kept his friends and family safe from the Devil, their Master.
The driver stood by the opened door for a moment and, upon seeing that nobody was stepping out, he stuck his head into the carriage, a brief and hushed conversation being held in the darkness of the vehicle before the driver pulled his head out again. “Billie, get in the carriage. Got a job for you to do.”
Billie moved automatically, dropping his woven bag of gathered sugar cane at the water’s edge, along with his machete, before climbing up the dirt banks to approach the carriage. The driver gave him a mocking bow before ushering him into the chilled box, closing the door behind him with a snap.
Billy was plunged into a darkened room of black silk and lace, his mud-caked feet leaving smears all over the black wooden floor. The only light within the entire carriage was from a single candle, hanging from the middle of the ceiling like a miniature chandelier. The smell of the carriage was like that of a rotting beast, but Billie was used to it.
Billie was called in often.
“So… Billie,” the Devil said, slinking a scant few inches closer to the light, so that the side of its face could be seen. Billie had never been able to determine his master’s gender, due to the creatures’ propensity to lurking in the darkness. “I see the crops have been light so far, and with the Jubilee but a scant few weeks away…”
Its tone was that of genuine concern, though not for its crops, nor the damned Jubilee held every year this time in Virginia. He knew the Devil loathed it, just as it loathed the spirituals the slaves sang whenever it wasn’t around. The slender features of his Master were like those of a wrinkled mannequin: stiff, no emotion or feeling breaking through the icy mask it wore.
“We getting’ it in on time Master, don’t you fret none,” Billie said, bowing his head as he spoke to it. He hated when their eyes met, and he got a glimpse of the darkened orbs once before he lowered his eyes.
He saw nothing in those eyes. No passion, no hatred, no pity… nothing. The way a man would look at a chicken, or a pig.
Not a care in the world.
“I’m sure you will, Billie, I’m sure you will,” the Devil agreed, licking its lips with a long, sinuous black tongue, like a black snake emerging from fresh snow. “I have a job for you, Billie.”
Billie stared down at his feet, knowing what this goddamned creature was going to ask him to do.
“I need you to select one of your healthier women, a virgin preferably. I need to know which one by tomorrow afternoon,” It continued, its silky voice seeming to rub at Billie’s shoulders, to ease the tension, the stress of what he was being told to do. “Do this, and there will be a month where the meals are doubled in size for everyone, and no unnecessary punishments for a week.”
It always made the offer sweet, tempting even. Asking every few months or so for one person from the slaves, always with different qualities… and asking Billie to help it do what it loved to do.
“The full moon will be at its apex tomorrow night. Tell the Driver her name and number, and then tomorrow night bring her to the tree. You know which tree, don’t you Billie?”
“Say it for me, Billie,” it crooned in a sibilant whisper, closing its eyes as if expecting some rare treat to come from the tired and dirtied slave.
“Devil’s Hand,” Billie grunted out, knowing what saying it would do.
His Master sucked in a shuddering breath before letting loose a long series of high-pitched giggles, a smile splitting its long face as the twin darkened orbs gazed at Billie.
“Thank you, Billie. Tell the rest of the slaves to go rest for the next three days. They’ll be earning it soon.”
Billie didn’t wait to be dismissed, and pushed his way from the cart, dropping to the dusty path with a cloud of dirt rising, the carriage already beginning to move, as the driver had apparently already climbed back up onto the bollock, taking the reins in his meaty hands. The carriage door flapped awkwardly until a long ebony cane lashed out, snagging it by the handle and pulling it closed, the carriage going on its way towards the manor.
The men and women groaned, some breaking into tears, when Billie told them they had the next three days off, and to go on home and rest. As the men gathered their supplies, Billie’s eyes scanned the horizon until he found what he was looking for.
A large tree resting at the top of a low hill, with five sturdy branches forming what looked like a clawed hand scratching at the heavens. In the brightness of the day, he could see how barren that tree was, not a leaf on it nor a blade of grass within twenty yards of it
Billie was always the one sent to check on the bitter old tree, to clean its smooth surface once a week with foul smelling oils and soaps. He always avoided the palm but made certain to clean every bit of the tree otherwise, even the high branches, which Billie swore were taller every week.
Billie was a good man. He’d look out for his people as best he could.
Even if it meant losing one every occasionally, to the depravities of the Devil himself.
The following day, Billie told the driver of his selection, and began chatting to the girl in question. Her name was Carly, and she had just reached the age of fourteen last week, her short-cropped hair and lean figure a result of working the orchards for the past several years. Carly looked up to Billie with obvious lust, and so it was easy to coax her away from the communal fire the slaves gathered around every night, cooking stews and telling stories passed down from generation to generation. Right now, all the older slaves, weathered and weary, looked upon Billie with a mixture of loathing and pity, as they knew what he was doing talking to Carly, especially after his announcement of a week free of labor and double rations for everyone. Still, they remained silent; they knew it had to be this way.
What other choice did they have?
The younger slaves, like Carly, didn’t know why their elders were in such poor spirits, even when they broke out their secretly brewed ales, spreading them among the gathered crowd freely, as one elder would stand at a time and tell tales of unity, of pride, and of diligence.
Billie made certain to keep edging towards the outer reaches of the crowd, where the shadows danced devilishly upon their primitive and unkempt dwellings, a gift from their “loving” Master. Carly, of course, followed him, like a bloodhound that had caught the scent of a fox, she stalked him as he walked towards one of the smaller huts he had claimed, a clay jug in his hand that gave off the sweet smell of fermented apples.
“Carly,” he said, looking over his shoulder in the near darkness at the beautiful young maiden, “would you like to see something strange?”
“Strange?” she replied, obviously confused. This wasn’t what she imagined Billie would be saying to her. “What do you mean?”
“Follow me, I’ll show you,” he said, taking a swig from the jar and slowly making his way from the small slave village and towards the hill where Devil’s Hand stretched up at the moon, almost longingly, it seemed.
Silently, she followed him, imagining he was taking her to some romantic little picnic he’d made from stolen fruits, or maybe a place for them to make love under the watchful gaze of Mother Moon.
For minutes, they walked in silence, slowly growing closer to the bizarre tree, outlined by the starlight. Billie closed his eyes as he the heard the faint rustling of grass, as he’d heard countless times. He took another swig from his jug as the driver, hulking yet stealthy, belched forth from the shadows behind the young girl, striking her in the back of the neck with his wide hands, dropping her to the grassy earth instantly with a soft thud.
As if on cue, the Devil emerged from the darkness at his elbow, nude and pale as the moon above. The same strange symbol marked atop the carriage was also carved into its chest. Billie, even now, couldn’t tell what gender his Master supposedly was, merely a neuter creature that was freakishly… obscene. With arms and legs too long, and torso too bent, he moved with an unearthly grass, as if his feet, three-toed multi-jointed endings to his monstrous legs, making his movements as utterly silent as night itself.
It’s back bore the same mark as its chest, though this mark was much smaller and darker, like a tattoo, just over its right shoulder blade.
It moved towards the tree, a great cauldron placed before the open palm of the plant, a fresh length of rope tied to the middle branch, far longer than any other hanging that would normally occur at any other plantation. As the Devil approached, the driver carrying Carly with the utter care as if she were the finest of china, the limb began to move, creaking and cracking as the bark twisted and groaned against nature itself, until the very end of the limb hung above the cauldron.
The Devil stroked the bark lovingly, a long-fingered hand lovingly patting it; and like the crackling of dry timbers in a high wind the tree shuddered at its touch. “Tie her up nice and good now, not too tight like last time. Right, Billie?”
Billie remembered last time, shuddering at the thought. They had performed these profane right numerous times, too many for Billie to count off the top of his head, but once… once they had performed it in haste, and it hadn’t taken.
They’d been forced to do another hanging the following night, “To set things right,” as the Devil had put it, with a sinister grin.
The Driver wrapped rope in a tight noose about the girl’s neck, placing her gently in the cauldron, like a baby in a bassinet. Sweet and innocent, pure. Now came the worst part of the entire rite, the part Billie dreaded more than the actual harvesting of his twisted Lord’s sacrifices.
“In Death, he come calling,” Billie began to sing slowly, hoarsely. He refused to look up for as long as possible. “He come calling with the Moon.”
The grass around them began to rustle, but no wind stirred.
“By moonlight he watches, waiting for lost souls,” Billie continued, his deep baritone growing louder, tears streaked down his face as he sang the mournful song slow and steady. “So, we bring to Him one, one in place of one.”
A slight, wavering chorus of tenors rang around them, forcing Billie to finally look up into the faces of the others like Carly. The ones who’d done this before, been sacrificed in such a way. Their faces formed from mist and shadow, contorted in eternal agony, in eternal sadness as they began to sing along with Billie’s hymnal.
“One in place of one…” they sang along with him.
“The first act of betrayal, started long ago,” Billie sang, the ethereal humming of his dead friends, family around him full of hatred, and anger. And ultimately, sadness. “We repeat this sanction, to hide from His eye.”
“Hide from the Lord…” the voices chorused. Billie choked back a sob but forced himself to continue. It looked like Carly was waking up, her eyes squinting as if rousing from a deep sleep.
“Murder begets Murder, or so He so commands,” Billie continued, watching as Carly roused fully, and began to scream at the dozens of spectral people hovering around them. “And so, we offer this one, to the Devil’s Own Hand.”
“The Devil’s Own Hand…” the voices hummed, beginning to repeat the lyrics as Carly panicked, looking to Billie for guidance as she had so often done. He forced himself to watch as the branch from which she was tied to yank her upright, pulling her from the cauldron and into the air. Her screams rose in pitch and fervor as she kicked and fought, but she merely amused the Devil as she fought for her freedom. The creaking of wood snapped and crackled as the finger curled inward, and over the palm.
“With our very own Abel, we shall keep me from being seen by those who would seek to rid me from this world,” the Devil said, just loud enough for me to hear as the sundered, splintered palm of the tree that so many would say was merely the formation of a lightning bolt healed over, wrenched open with a sound so unnatural, it could only be likened to the first cry of a child fresh from the womb, high and unyielding.
The splitting palm revealed itself to be a toothy maw, one from which a hellish green blossom glowed as Carly dangled above it, screaming, her hands struggling with the noose to maintain her ability to breathe.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the crying girl was lowered inch by inch past the sharpened wooden joints so like teeth, into the verdant light of whatever lay inside that tree. As always, Billie could see rotten arms emerging from the maw as Carly’s ankles were low enough, grasping at her, trying to find purchase.
When he’d first seen it, he’d assumed they were trying to grab at her, to pull her apart or to cause her more harm in some way. But after the fifth or sixth time, he realized that no… no, those were the arms of the dead he’d brought to this tree. The arms of men and women he’d worked with, worked alongside, some for many years.
His brother’s arms were among those trying to find enough purchase to begin pulling themselves from whatever Hell he’d consigned them to.
They never were able to get enough of a hold to pull themselves to freedom. Carly was being lowered too fast, the toothy maw too wide and sharpened for the rotted hands to grasp at without being sliced apart.
The mouth began to close over Carly, as her short-cropped hair and doe-eyes vanished in a flurry of torn grey arms, welcoming her to her new home. Billie liked to think that what he was doing was good, good for all the slaves as a group. The Devil made certain to buy any member of the tribe that went up for auction, says it was wrong “not to have your family with you.”
Billie thought it was bullshit. He didn’t think it cared about them at all, not as humans, at the very least. The white men that run this world look at them like men, lesser men, but men none the less. The Devil wouldn’t even look at them as if they were food. He looked at them in a different way, the way you look at a piece of furniture or at an interesting toy; it didn’t look at them with hatred or disgust like the white man. In a strange way, Billie had the feeling it respected the slaves.
The driver walked up to the cauldron, grasping the edges of the great black bowl and wiggling it, driving the four iron legs deeper into the soft earth of the hill, just as the longest branch, “the “middle finger” began to creak, dried timber groaning as it bent forward.
As it slowly made its descent, the Devil walked up to the Cauldron, its grotesque and genderless form glistening in the moonlight as it continued to shift and change, away from the guise it wore like a suit to walk among man, and into what you could tell was its natural skin. Translucent tissue over black veins raced along its body, a horrid squelching noise wrenching the air as the Devil’s legs do that twisting thing, the knees spinning to make its legs more like that of a horse than that of a man.
The Devil’s hair, different every time Billie saw it, slowly fell out in great clumps as its ears lengthened even further, its face growing longer. A hairless beast mimicking a man, with wide ebony eyes and the mouth of a dragon, lipless and sneering, stood before the cauldron now, twice Billie’s height with arms and legs as thin as corn stalks.
The branch finally stopped cracking as it sat stooped above the cauldron, the tip of the finger peeling back to vomit forth sopping green goo into the cauldron, the pungent formula already steaming as it rapidly began to fill the pot. As the last of the rancid fluid tapered off, the thick branch creaked back into place, settling between the other finger-like branches as if nothing had happened.
“Ahh…” the Devil cooed, its voice now sibilant and low, walking around the luminescent cauldron, the faint green glow casting horrid images across the translucent body of whatever Billie served. “It’s been far too long.”
It dipped a long, spidery digit into the brew, bringing the clotting green slime to its mouth for a taste. “Ah, delicious. She truly was innocent in every way. Driver! Begin bottling her essence. Use the old bottles from last time, the glass should still hold.”
The driver moved far quicker than his frame should allow, a crate over one shoulder with a shirt length of hose over the other. He quickly began filling empty wine bottles with the essence of Carly, corking each one deftly as each filled, forming a quick rhythm.
The Devil slithered across the clearing towards Billie, walking silent as the owl flies, until he towered over the slave, his long snout jutting down just above his head. “I thank you, Billie. After all this time, I have watched you do what must be done for your people. You know I disapprove of what has been done to your people, right?”
Billie nodded. The Devil never addressed him after the ceremony, merely waved him away. This wasn’t supposed to happen unless something went wrong. The Devil continued speaking.
“I’ve walked this earth far longer than you could even begin to imagine Billie,” it continued, its hot breath wafting over his throat and shoulder, “I roamed the wilds of your native land back before you even knew it was yours. Before you had the idea of greed. Back when you and your people were innocent.
“Wh-Who are you? What are you”
“My name is one as old as the God you now pray to, as I was one of the few he punished and let live. That is why I need innocence so badly, my dear Billie. I lost mine when I lost my brother.”
Billie didn’t know what that meant, but he knew what it felt like to lose a brother, to kill him even. He’d brought him to the Devil. His screams were the loudest in his nightmares.
“I tell you this, Billie, because I tire of the endless days and nights I face alone. I tell you because I can make you like me,” it said, noisily clearing its reptilian chops of saliva. “And I’ll even pay you for it.”
“What could possibly make me want to be like you?” Billie snorted, stepping back in fear of being attacked.
“Freedom for your people,” it offered, opening its arms wide. “I have three ships ready for the motherland, room enough for your entire tribe. The holds are full of tools and weapons to protect them from any other white men that might come by, and more importantly… we’ll be going with them!”
Billie stared at it long and hard, thinking of all he’d done in the name of keeping his people safe, of all the sins he bore that he knew God never would forgive. “What do I call you, then?”
“Brother,” it hissed happily, two hands coming up to his shoulders, spidery fingers dancing down Billie’s back. “But only if I may call you the same, Abel.”