He walked in.
Bill took a look at him and figured who he was from the looks of him. He’d wished his wife would have not told him many, many things.
Bill nodded and adjusted his belt around his waist and said, “Well, she says there’s a spook in back a them woods.”
“Where at?” he said.
“Up, way up there,” Bill said, “and he comes down.”
The room in Bill’s house was cold and brown. The sky coming in the windows was white.
“When do you see him?” he asked.
“He’s got a long, gray face, yellow eyes, like egg yolks.” Bill said. “I dunno, he comes down at different times.”
Bill’s wife came in. “Oh, my . . .”
She looked at the strange man in the hat, and her mouth moved as if to say something, but then she said, “We have company. You should tell me when we’ve got company. We have coffee.”
“Ma’am,” he said and glanced at her quickly, but didn’t look at her, and then turned back to her husband. “I’m Jim Falk. I’m here to talk about the spook.”
“Well,” she said and looked quickly at Bill, “You tell ’em. I’ll just get you some hot coffee.”
“I’m tellin’ him.” Bill said.
She went off. She was pretty, with red hair and high cheeks, and she was younger than her husband. Jim Falk didn’t look at her, but he wasn’t sure that he had to look at her to see her. It must be her.
Jim said, “This spook—he comes down in winter or in summer?” Then Bill looked at Jim and opened his eyes a little wider, but not very much, and he pointed at the wood chairs and his square table in the room. Jim saw that Bill’s fingers were crooked from work with busted knuckles.
They sat. There was a book with a leather binding on the table and a couple of candles. The candles were dirty. The book was a book of the scriptures.
Bill went on, looking at the candles and the table. “He comes down every season, I suppose, maybe once a season maybe more, but there’s no certain time.”
“When does he come?”
“He comes at night in summer.”
“In the fall he comes at night, and in the spring.”
“In the spring he comes at night too?”
Bill nodded, but looked at the backs of his hands and not at Jim.
“What about in the winter?”
“In the winter he comes at night. He came during the bad blizzard, and it seemed like he came twice that winter and came during the day.”
She brought out two white cups of dark, hot coffee. She set them down in front of Bill and Jim and then leaned in the doorway listening.
“Twice in the winter?” Jim continued.
“Yes. That’s how I remember it. Violet?”
“Tell Jim Falk what you said when the spook came down out the woods during that bad winter.”
“Well,” she started. She moved around, recrossed her arms, and stared at her feet in black shoes on the wood floor. “That winter was a bad one. That winter was about four years ago, and when that spook came down outta them woods, well . . .” She talked as if she was bored, arranging herself against the door frame. “Well, that’s when the baby Starkey went missing . . . and I think that spook got hold of that little baby.”
“For what?” Jim asked.
She blinked and looked at Jim sort of sideways and squinted, whispering, “I think that particular spook’s a baby eater.”
Jim Falk looked at her. There she was. She leaned on the doorway with her pointy shoulders and her ruddy hair. Jim saw no lie in her eyes, but he caught something else there, playing. It was like a jewel or a sparkling thing. Jim looked away. He wondered if somehow or another she knew—if she knew that he had seen her, or someone that looked like her, in his mind.
“That’s right,” her husband said, “that’s right.” He picked up his cup with a clink and blew off the steam. “A baby eater.”
Jim Falk flipped open a little leather book to a blank page. Bill Hill watched the pages of black symbols go by, words he didn’t recognize. Violet shifted again.
Jim asked, “Who is the baby Starkey?” and got out a little black stick that looked a little oily.
Violet said right away, “That was Dan and Elsie Starkey’s baby. Their real baby together. They lived up the road.” She sneezed a short sneeze and looked at her husband. He looked down at his coffee.
“That’s been a few years back now,” she said, pulling a small rag from somewhere in her shirt and wiping her nose. “Dan’s moved on.”
“That’s right,” Bill said. “Dan’s supposed to have moved up north somewhere and Elsie lives with her other boy now, that Simon. It ain’t right by the scriptures, him leavin’ her alone like that, just walking away from her, leavin’ her with that boy. That boy, Simon, he takes care of her, they say I guess on account of she’s been sick.”
“Except he ain’t her boy,” Violet said and went back fast into the kitchen.
Bill looked at Jim and watched him write things in the book with the oily stick. He shook his head and said low, “That boy’s not from around here. He’s from some other place across the sea or some such place. Like them people from the Far East that they took out west to make ’em build the towns in the West. Them Starkeys raised him up from young. Guess they found him all alone.”
“You mean you think he’s from the Far East?”
“A foreigner of some kind. Maybe a one from the Far East.”
Jim drank some coffee. Violet was off in the kitchen making noise, and the wind was blowing against the little house.
They drank some more coffee. Jim closed his writing book and looked around the little house. It wasn’t too different from the one he grew up in. A wood-burning stove in the kitchen filled it with that fire and coffee smell he remembered from times long ago. He didn’t want to think about that. Jim glanced at the stack of firewood in the corner.
“These woods are the woods the spook appears in right here in back of your house?” Jim finally asked.
“Yes,” Bill said. “Yessir.”
At the bar down in Sparrow, they were drinking beer—Hattie Jones, Benjamin Straddler, and Simon.
Simon, the Starkey boy, was telling them about a trick with cards. The trick was called the moving hole. Hattie was laughing at the idea, and beer was jiggling out of his mug.
Hattie said, “I need me one o’ those, a moving hole.” He looked down at the little boy, who was playing with some papers on the floor by his stool. “Show us!”
Simon did the trick, and everyone was taken aback. He punched a hole in an ace of spades with a knife. Then he took the hole out of the ace and put the hole in his hand. He held up his hand and showed the hole all the way through. Then he took the hole from the middle of his hand and moved it to the king of hearts. He showed the ace again. It was okay. He showed his hand again. No hole.
Hattie Jones just about swallowed his pipe.
Benjamin Straddler was too serious to smile, but he said, “That is some trick.”
Then, Jim Falk came in the front door.
Everybody looked at him for a second or two, but he looked honest and plain enough. They looked back at their beers and their friends, but they listened close in a sideways way.
Huck Marbo was the owner of this bar, and he had one leg and one daughter. Many years and many trials were upon his brow, but his smile was still bright and quick because of his daughter. May ran the table service for Huck, and though she was not generally thought of as pretty, she had a brighter, bigger smile than her father and her simple hands were quick to service.
Jim Falk came and sat down at a table by the window, and Huck nodded for May to serve him.
Jim felt good to sit down. All that afternoon, after talking to Violet and Bill Hill, he had gone tramping in the woods. A gray light was on everything, a fog. The sky was white and cold and the trees stuck out over the loam black as hairs. Everything was dim and solid. The woods got colder and harder to see as he went up the mountain. His black boots crackled on the leaves.
Even though the fog was thick, he focused his eyes on everything, and that wore him out. His mind and eyes got tired, but the pictures might stay forever—or at least if he couldn’t see them in his mind’s eye when he was awake, when he slept tonight the dreams might show him the details. Maybe he would see something he didn’t see. It happened.
“We have beer and whisky and coffee,” May said and looked at the table when Jim looked up at her face. She didn’t talk loud either.
“Beer,” Jim said and meant it.
He looked past her and out the window. The night was black. It made him think. His mind rushed through the forest. There was a funny thing about this one tree that started fiddling in his head. There was some wiry shape, writhing. It faded out.
The bar came back in his vision. It was a nice place; maybe it was even pretty. It wasn’t exactly a bar either. Jim Falk had stopped in many such places. Small settlements like this one usually had some spot that doubled or tripled as a store and a bar and whatever else. Some of them even had pianos. This one did not have a piano. There were some oil lamps, candles, and even a picture on the wall of a boat going down a river. There were other things that they were selling—rope, nails, mallets, marked bottles, and other such things on shelves.
He saw this Simon Starkey kid, from the Far East (so Bill Hill supposed), doing card tricks for the men with hats and red faces. Then they laughed, and the kid from the Far East made a noise like a bird and flittered his hands around. Then they all laughed again and started to play poker for money.
Just as the game started, Hattie Jones tapped his fiddle-bow four times on the wood table. His pipe blew smoke as a song began whining out of the fiddle, and a little boy with wide eyes stood up beside him and hummed exactly what the fiddle whined.
Hattie sang a song. His voice was cracked and old, and it made Jim think of the sounds of cold birds in the mud. The little boy stood up and started singing with him.
Old them woods was, shiver, shiver
Filled her boots with snow and silver
Shiver, shiver! Shiver, shiver!
Little darling by the river.
Jim took a drink of beer and smiled while the mug covered his mouth, but stopped smiling when he put the beer down.
Jim could never remember all the words to that song because for some reason he had started to focus in on this Simon Starkey, but the song was something about a lost little girl in the snow who was loved by the fairies. He wanted to write it down, but he didn’t.
It was this Simon fellow who had got all Jim’s focus. When he was over at the Hills’ earlier, Violet was saying some things about this kid, Simon.
“He was raised up by them from a little baby, is what they said,” she had said from in the kitchen.
“Violet,” Bill said, “you open up that window if you’re gonna be smokin’.”
The kitchen window squealed and there was a pause as she tinkered with something. She continued, “They came here with the baby, but that boy was full-grown sixteen years.”
“That’s right,” Bill said and pushed away his coffee cup a little.
“He spoke perfect too, just like me or you or Bill, remember, even better than some around here speaks their own,” she called in.
Bill said, “Most foreigners have an accented speech.” And he eyed Jim with a half-squinted eye.
Jim gave a quick nod and called in to Violet, “Violet, this is very good coffee, thank you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Falk,” she said and came back in the room with a smile and looking a little flushed and fiddling with her necklace.
Jim Falk gazed at her and then back at Bill. Bill was staring out the window at a fog rolling in from the woods. Since Bill’s eyes were looking out the window, Jim took a second glance at Violet Hill. She was looking right back.
“How you get such a thick fog when it’s cold out like this?” Bill said, and Jim looked out the window fast.
Violet’s green eyes drew Jim back to her. “Dan, who was married to Elsie—he moved outta here about four or five years ago now, I guess, whenever that spring was right after the real bad winter and the awful snow.” Violet swallowed, put her left hand to her throat, fiddled with a silver chain, and then went on. “Elsie’s older than me. They come up here from some river town. They used to talk about that big river that comes down from the town they were in, River Top, River Den, River something.” She squeezed her eyes real hard as if that might help her remember. “See, Mr. Falk, Elsie might be older than me, but she’s still young, and that Simon boy isn’t at a right age, where they . . .” She wagged her finger at the empty coffee cups and raised up her eyebrows.
Bill said, “Yes, we’re done.”
“The right age?” Jim said, watching her hands take the cups.
Violet looked him straight in the eye, and he saw again that strange, moving jewel behind there. This time it slithered. “Well, I just mean that he ain’t the right age to be really raised by her. Since Dan’s gone, gone who knows where, she and that foreign boy that ain’t her boy have been shacked up in that house, if you catch my meaning.”