“How does he tempt us to do sin against God?” Papa asked, as he angled the hand plane to the side of the wood that had been a walnut tree not two months ago. His body quivered under the weight of the August heat and the strain from the hardness of the still-green wood, refusing to shed its skin. Sweat dripped from his chin and fell to the sawdust at his boots.
“He lies,” Hazel said. “He is the father of all lies. When you lie, he laughs because he made one of God’s children do wrong.” Hazel smiled at herself and looked to see if Papa had smiled back at her answer.
The cicadas made their rattle in the trees overhead. She had brought Papa his lemonade and there it lay, sweating in the heat on the stump with his hatchet buried beside it. Hazel wondered how long Papa could let it sit on such a hot day. How could he not be thirsty on a dog day like this? She wondered if the ants would find it first and drink it till they'd drowned themselves in the sweet nectar; she pictured black specks floating in the silvery colored liquid.
Where does he hide?” Papa asked, his voice low and strained.
“He hides…in…beauty,” Hazel said, feeling unsure of herself.
Papa looked up and grabbed the glass of lemonade; it looked too small in his big hands, like a toy teacup for a doll. He drank it in three big gulps as drops ran down the sides of his cheeks and onto his bare chest. His skin glistened in the sunlight and Hazel could see the blue veins from underneath his fair skin.
“Beauty is the Lord’s. How does he hide in what the Lord makes?”
Hazel’s eyes snapped shut and she saw sparks behind her eyelids. Her ears began to ring in a syncopated rhythm. Then she felt the burn and numbness on her left cheek; she didn’t have time to flinch before Papa’s hand had hit the side of her face. When Papa struck her it wasn’t hard enough to bruise or break the skin, but it was hard enough to hurt.
“How does he hide in what the Lord makes?” he asked, as he continued to hone the sides of the wood as if he had never moved.
Hazel watched the glass Papa had just emptied; the condensation dripped from its sides and ran into the stump. She vaguely looked at the hatchet and wondered how sharp it was. Papa always kept his tools oiled and sharp. Whenever she walked into the shed she smelled sawdust, mildew, and the oil he put on his tools. Finally, she looked up and saw him staring at her. He seemed to be ever so slightly shaking all over. Or was it the heat and sweat that wrapped everything in a warm heavy blanket that made him seem to shimmer?
“He hides in beauty when we like it too much,” Hazel said.
“When we like something too much, like a new car or dress, it’s him making us forget God.”
“That’s good Hazel. You are such a good girl.”
He laid down the wood plane and handed her the empty glass of lemonade. As she turned to go he reached out and grasped her chin between his finger and thumb. He gently touched the side of her face he had struck. His hands were rough and moist, but she didn’t try to turn away. She looked up at him and saw he had tears in his eyes. Papa always cried when he talked about the Lord. Papa’s voice was hoarse when he asked, “Who was Lucifer, Hazel? Tell me who he was before the Fall.”
Hazel looked into her father’s eyes and saw the sweat mingle with one tear that ran down his left cheek. She couldn’t hear anything but the sound of her own heartbeat in her ears and the constant cadence of the cicadas crawling upon the branches of the trees. She was too young to know the cicadas were singing to mate; she pictured the noise in her head as the sound of their jaws while eating the leaves of the trees. Papa’s blue eyes were light and she remembered how Mama always said he was the most handsome man in Pickens County. He let go of her chin and she stared back at him.
“Lucifer was God’s favorite angel, His first angel that He made, and he was the most beautiful of all the angels. He was God’s right-hand man,” Hazel said.
“And what happened to him? How did he become the Devil?”
“He was jealous…”
“Jealous of what?”
Father’s hand twitched and she acted like she didn’t see it. He was standing so close to her now that she could smell the scent of sweat rolling off his body, and then she could smell her own.
“Jealous of us. God chose us and wanted him to help us, but he wouldn’t, ’cause of pride. It was the pride that made him fall, Daddy.”
“And where have you seen him last?”
Hazel froze. She didn’t want to get a smack again, but she knew she had never seen him. She knew that she had looked for the Devil in shadows and in her teacher, Miss Shepard, while she was still in the fifth grade, and in her cousin Judith, but she had never seen him. She bit her lip and muttered, “I ain't never seen him Daddy, and I hope I never do.”
“You will Hazel. You will see him plenty. You need to be able to recognize him, too.”
Hazel went inside and washed Papa’s glass.
From in the kitchen she could hear Mama watching the TV. She glanced into the living room to see Mama standing with the vacuum cleaner in her hand, turned off, staring at the TV, as if she hadn’t ever noticed it before; her mouth was held in a slight, inquisitive grin. Hazel craned her neck to see Gorgeous George, The Greatest Wrestler of All Time, strutting like a peacock across the ring, all the while the crowd booed and howled. With every boo from the crowd, Gorgeous George just smiled wider and wider. He had on a silk robe with lace around the collar, like a woman’s wedding dress, and carried a fan in his left hand, held up high above his head. He fanned his face as he smiled and waved to the crowd as if they were all adoring fans.
“Mama, what’s he wearing that dress for?”
Hazel’s mother looked up, startled, and then glanced through the window to see if Papa was still working by the shed. She then looked back to the TV as Gorgeous George was given roses by his manager. He kissed each one and threw them into the now-snarling crowd. They ripped them up and tried to throw the shreds of flowers back.
“Mama, what’s that man wearing that dress for?”
“He isn’t wearing a dress, Hazel, it’s a robe.”
“Well what’s it so fancy for? What’s that fan for anyway?”
“What’s your papa doing? Is he close to finishing the top of his podium?”
Papa had been working on the podium for his church all week. He started building his own church last summer. The foundation was laid and the frames were up.
“It don’t look like it to me. What do you think he would think of Gorgeous George, struttin’ around like that, with a fan and that lace and…”
“Your papa’s got no time for Gorgeous George, Hazel, and neither do you. You finish your dishes and holler if you see him coming inside, you hear?”
Hazel wondered why Mama was so shy about watching wrestling when anyone was around. Why couldn’t she watch it too? She opened the window and hoped Papa could hear the slams and slaps while he was working by the shed. As she washed the dishes she could hear the boos and even a few cheers as Gorgeous George wrestled his opponent. When she looked out the window she saw a big white truck pull up and a man in a tanned suit start talking to Papa. Hazel wondered how the man could be wearing a suit in the August heat at 2:30 in the afternoon. His shoes were shiny and he held a hat in his hand. Papa had his hands on his hips and was slowly shaking his head while the man in the suit spoke.
“Hazel, go see if your papa wants another glass of lemonade, and see and tell me how far he’s come with that podium you hear?”
Hazel walked out with a full glass, and politely waited behind the man with the tan suit.
“Something’s got to be done, Norman. We can’t let it stand like this. He knew where he was supposed to be, and got too bold and went out last night. Stabbed and killed that cab driver, Tommy was his name. Hell, my wife’s cousin went to school with the man. Left him and took that money. Well, the sheriff found his ass hiding up with his mama. Says he was out late after work and stopped by the bar, right where that cab driver’s last fare was. They got that boy in at the station and you know Sheriff Fulton’s a good man. We’re going out there to get him tomorrow night. Sheriff said he’ll still be there.”
The color of Papa’s face went from red to white as the man was talking. He seemed to be staring past the man and into the trees where the cicadas were singing. He didn’t seem to notice Hazel or the glass of lemonade she held in her hands. Hazel wondered if she should speak or if Papa would want her to wait till she was spoken to. The man in the suit was a big fat man, but not strong like Papa. Hazel wondered if he knew who Gorgeous George was.
“Tom, didn’t you say he was in the jail? And Fulton’s a good man? Ain't we suppose to let him and the law sort it out?”
“Damn the law and damn what we’re supposed to do! This is about what’s right. My family goes back here for a hundred years. Hell, we use to own most of this whole God-fearing town. And now they come in here and stab a man to death for not ten dollars? And I’m supposed to just lay down and take it? We’re not letting those coons get away with murdering one of our boys, Norm.”
The man’s face was red and purple, and the sweat was rolling down his cheeks and gliding down his set of chins onto his neck and into his white shirt. Papa’s face was impassive as he continued to stare at the man in the suit as if he could see through his skull and into his brain. Papa spit and wiped his forehead. The man in the suit changed his tone as he slowly took off his jacket to reveal a shirt and black tie.
“Norm, you’re a smart man. And you know they are clever when they want to be. Hell, they got the whole country fooled about rights and the Constitution and everything else. We are gonna get him tomorrow tonight and take him out to Bramlett, past Dockery’s. You know where those two old roads meet? Right there over the line into Twelve Creek?”
Hazel held the lemonade in her hand and stared at her daddy as he looked at the ground and pawed at it with his boot; he ground the sawdust and leaves into the red clay. Hazel thought he looked sad and tired and like he wanted to cry, but she knew he wouldn’t cry in front of this man or any other. He must be thinking of the Lord, she thought.
“You know Norm, this would go a long way to helping you finish your church. I mean…a couple of our boys can put the rest up within a week, and I bet that first collection in your new church would go a long way to getting Joyce a new dress, and that little one some braces, and you already have a new TV and…”
Papa looked up, remembering Hazel was there. “Joyce don’t need a new dress and Hazel’s teeth are just fine. You let me worry about that new damn TV.”
Smash him Papa, hit him up side the head, he’s just a fat man, Hazel thought.
“Are you with us Norm? We’ll all be there, ain't nothing to be afraid of. Out past Dockery’s, down by the river. If you didn’t come it wouldn’t sit right with a lot of people. We’ll take care of it Norm. You won’t have to do anything.”
Hazel had finished her chores and was out feeding the chickens behind the house when she heard the door slam and footsteps run into the house.
“Lord, Judith, can you not slam that door,” Mama said.
“Yes ma’am, I was coming to see if…”
“How’s my sister? Did she mention she might come for supper?”
“No, ma’am, she is laying down today, not feeling too good I reckon.”
“Tell her we asked about her for supper, will you?”
“Hazel’s out back with the chickens.”
Judith bounced into the backyard and grabbed a chicken with both hands and threw it in the air. The chicken squawked and flapped its wings till it landed safely on the ground, well away from Judith. Hazel laughed while marveling at how wild Judith could be and how no one seemed to care or notice. If she tried that, Mama would tan her hide. Judith was two years older than Hazel, but seemed older than a twelve-year-old.
“What are you doing out here?” Judith said. “Let’s go to Twelve Mile Creek and swim before supper. It’s been so hot all day. I bet that water is cool and wonderful.”
“Mama says that river is dirty because of all the straight-piping. We better just go underneath the pines and cool off in the bed of needles.”
“And my mama says the river has its own way of cleaning the water. She says God made it that way. When the water has run over seven rocks, it’s clean enough to swim in. Come on, let’s go. We’ll be back before supper.”
Hazel looked at Judith switching her weight from one foot to the other and biting her nails. She looked as if she was going to start dancing the waltz with another one of Mama’s chickens, right there in the yard, if Hazel didn’t say yes.
Hazel and Judith bolted down into the woods and jumped over the fallen trees and through the brambles toward Twelve Mile Creek. Judith was older and had longer legs and so was faster than Hazel. She seemed to love the branches scratching at her face and would jump over logs and rocks and use her hands to part the tree limbs as if she were swimming under water. When she tripped and fell she would roll herself up into a little ball and try and get back on her feet and run before she stopped.
Movement called to Judith like scripture to a preacher. Hazel couldn’t count the times her cousin had come over with legs bleeding and cut up from her mama’s switch. She usually got a switch after church from wiggling all over the pew or trying to talk to Mr. Hick’s boy, Marvin, while the preacher was giving a sermon, or while she was suppose to be singing “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” Sometimes she came running over after supper and her arms would have welts and purple bruises on them from where Aunt Mandy would grab her and cuss her to her face. But Judith never stopped; it was like moving and doing was what felt good to her.
Hazel could hear the splash before she could see the river. The waters of Twelve Mile Creek sounded cool and inviting as she ran to catch up. Paget’s Hole was six feet deep and hid directly under a trestle that soared fifty feet up from the river. One day, before Hazel was allowed to go to Paget’s Hole without her mama or papa, a boy named Huey Gosnell had jumped off the top of the trestle. It was right after a thunderstorm, and he told everyone the water would be deep enough. Huey was in high school and all his friends had come to watch. It was too bad none of his friends stopped him, Mama said, because he was right about the water being deep enough, but didn’t take into account the current, and his body was found a quarter of a mile downriver.
Hazel and Judith splashed in the water and let it rejuvenate them from the hot afternoon. The water was just cold enough and the trestle kept them in the shade from the last rays of the sun. Judith pumped her long legs and swam from side to side while Hazel tired to tread water.
“You hear about that boy who killed that cab driver over in Easley, Haz? I heard he cut the cab driver’s face up with a straight razor and took the money and left him to die in a ditch. You hear that too?”
Hazel wiggled herself onto a rock and began to dry off in the last snatches of the sun. She hesitated and wasn’t sure if she should say yes.
“They say they found him hiding out at his mama’s place and he had a bloody knife on him. They say the Klan is gonna go down there tomorrow night and take that boy out somewhere in the woods and give him a lynching. I heard he’s as good as dead.” Judith pulled herself on the rocks and began to pull on her socks and shoes.
“Well, I heard Papa talking to some fat man in a nice suit. Papa didn’t want to go, but I think he was asking Papa to go with them. I don’t know why Papa would wanna go watch a boy get killed, even if he did kill that cab driver.”
Judith looked out over the river and closed her eyes and took a deep breath and then exhaled into the damp cool air that was over the water. “Ya papa’s wanted to go because he’s gonna be the new preacher in Pickens. Mr. Carver’s about to retire because he smoked so much he can’t hardly preach no more. He can’t hardly even breathe. They want to know if ya papa will be like Mr. Carver. You know he was in the Klan till he got sick?”
Hazel didn’t answer and wasn’t sure what the Klan was, but she had heard her mama once say, “Those Klan boys are the stupidest fools on God’s earth, if they think drinking and smoking and staying out all night to beat up those boys is the Lord’s work. They ought to be home where God told them to go. They should be with their families at night.”
Hazel glanced over and saw Judith’s painted toes glisten in the pink and yellow light of the sunset. “You can’t do that. How did your mama let you paint your feet like that?”
Judith smiled and moved her red toes back and forth.
“Mama had a coupon for buy one, get one free. I went over to Mr. Cornwall’s and bought two bottles with Mama’s money. I told her the coupon was expired and kept the free bottle. What do you think?”
“Then you lied, and you owe your mama for a bottle of that nail polish.”
“I don’t owe her, it ain't like stealing. She still got her bottle. Anyway, don’t they look pretty?” Judith said as she put her socks on.
“Mama said you can always tell when a girl’s about to go wrong because she starts to paint her toes,” Hazel said. “Mama don't even paint her nails and she’s married. If your mama catches you, she’ll switch your legs again.”
“Hazel, you know what? I don’t care anymore about being switched or Mama yelling at me ’til she spits in my face. The other day she tried to put my arm in the oven. I smacked her on the face and she let go. I think she’s going crazy and I ain't gonna put up with it no more.”
“Did she really try to put your arm in the oven? Was it hot?”
“Hell yes, it was hot. And I almost let her burn me, but I didn’t and I’m not going to either. No one can do anything about Daddy dying up there by the train tracks. I didn’t make him drink and she did everything he ever wanted, acted like his slave and servant and he still got drunk all the time and fell asleep down on those tracks. You know what? I want to stop feeling bad all the time. Haven’t you noticed that nobody in this town ever acts like they feel good? Maybe I want Marvin to see my painted toes and want to kiss me and marry me. Me and him could get out of this town and go live somewhere else. Somewhere where I can wear what I want and don’t have to act like feeling bad is normal all the time.”
“Papa says we need to be careful of the Devil. He says we have to be careful of what we want too much. It ain't right to try and be pretty for Marvin. Papa says that’s where the Devil hides, in the things people like too much. He says he sees the Devil all the time in things like that.”
Judith’s cheeks were flushed and she put out her lower lip like she was angry. “Well, Hazel, I see the Devil all the time too. I see him in this town, and in the church, and how everyone wants to kill that boy, and how he maybe killed that cab driver, and how your papa cries after he hits you, and how I’m supposed to just stand still and wait till the good Lord comes and takes me to some nice place after I die. What about right now Hazel? What about here and right now?”
The girls walked through the woods to their homes. Their footfalls made them sound like elephants crashing through underbrush. Before they came out in Hazel’s backyard, they were holding hands to try and keep the darkness away.
“Do you really see the Devil everywhere, Judith?”
“No, I’ve never seen him. But I think there’s a lot of people who act wrong all the time. I don’t know if you can really see him. I think he may be kind of like inside people. Why do you ask? You ain’t seen nothing in these woods have you?”
“I wish you hadn’t asked that, now I’ll be seeing the Devil ’til we get to the back porch. No, I’ve never seen him. I was wondering because Papa says I need to be able to spot him, you know? I mean he could be anywhere.”
“Hazel, do you really want to know? I know I don’t ever want to see no old Devil.”
Hazel went to sleep tired and full from the supper Mama made. The waters from the creek had loosened the muscles of her body and she felt clean and relaxed. She didn’t think of the man in the tanned suit, or Papa’s smack on the cheek, as she drifted off to sleep. All she could think about was how Judith had stolen her mama’s nail polish and painted her toes a dark red. She thought of Judith splashing around in the water and how pretty she looked, and how Judith must know she looked pretty. Hazel felt bad for Judith and her mama; she felt afraid too. As she slept she occasionally woke up in the night with the feeling something was pushing down on her stomach and causing her to feel like she couldn’t move and then like she could not breathe. She would awake with the taste of something metallic in her mouth and the smell of sweat and fresh cut wood in her nose. And then she dreamed and dreamed some more.
“Ohhh, young Hazel. Can you hear your papa working long into the night, on that church?” the Devil says, as he sits Indian-style on Hazel. His voice is slow and soft; he seems to be almost singing or humming a cadence as he speaks. “Listen to his saw, and the sawdust run to the ground. Hear him wheeze and cough out there in the night? Why you think your papa’s working so hard? Why you think he can’t sleep?
Hazel tries to wake and mumbles, “He doesn’t want to go.”
“Yessss,” the Devil chuckles, “ya papa didn’t like what he heard that mean ol’ man in the tanned suit say. No, not one bit. He’s working away because he don’t wanna go down that old road past Dockery’s, he just don’t wanna go. But how much does he love that church now, Hazel? You know he loves the idea of having his own church. And you know what, Hazel? He’ll be able to cry every Sunday while in his pulpit for all to see. Your papa needs it. Cradles the idea of it. I mean, can you imagine your papa without a church to preach in? If he ain’t got a church to preach in, who he’s gonna preach to? Huh? No, no, he has to have his church. He’ll do anything to have his church, which makes it my church Hazel. My church. Your papa is building me a new place to live, a new house. Well, I could always use one more.”
The Devil smiles as Hazel tries to turn over, but is kept flat by his weight. Hazel awakens and moans, but he shushes her back to sleep with his spit-shined shoe on her mouth. He looks outside and watches as Norman Chasteen saws a two-by-six in two, and sets to put nails in it. “Faster. Faster now,” the Devil says.
Norman nailed and nailed until his body began to shake and then he cut another two-by-six. And another. And he nailed and nailed again. He no longer had any concept of time. For him the moment was the master and he was right to be in it. The humidity and chorus of katydids were not present in his moment. All that mattered was the work. The work was his and the fruit from the work would be his. It would nourish him and his family. All would be well when the work was done. Norman swung his tool on into the night. He didn’t even cry out when he hammered away a nail into his thumb and caught it on the wall; it took the sight of blood to awaken the deepest animal sense to give him pause. The blood gushed from his bust finger and then oozed onto the fresh yellow of the cut boards. He unblinkingly pulled the board out from the wall to free his hand, and the nail ripped off his thumbnail with it. Norman looked at the gushing appendage and set the two-by-six back in place and began to hammer again. He became dizzy with each new board and set of nails to drive in, but he never thought of stopping. He never thought about quitting. Norman had never quit anything in his life and now was going to be no different. This wall would go up tonight, be damned. He knew this church was going to be his and all of Pickens and Easley were going to come and hear him preach about the ways of the Lord. And, the ways of the Devil. One mustn’t forget about the Devil. People have to accept the good with the bad. That was the problem these days, people thought always about the good, but never allowed for the bad. Evil isn’t the opposite of good, he thought as he hammered away and the dirt underneath his feet shook. It’s the corruption of good.
The Devil smiles at Hazel’s father and looks down at her. He breathes the heavy night air and feels the heat swell up inside him as he exhales into the black. He admires the sleeping, sweating body of Hazel. How tiny and new she still is. “Have you ever seen me Hazel? Don’t you know what I look like? God made me first. And tomorrow night I want you to go with your papa down past Dockery’s so you can see me. You’re such a smart girl. I know you can figure how to get down there without anyone the wiser. And don’t you wanna be like Judith too? You know it ain't a crime to use your head to get what you want. You go out there with your papa and watch for me, I like you. Gonna show you what your papa’s always crying for and hitting ya for.” The Devil laughs and works his dream inside her. He makes her wither and shriek from it, makes her able to remember what she needs to remember and forget what she needs to forget. “Sleep, sleep, sleep.”