Any Deadly Thing

This was my first novel. It sprang from a short story I wrote in 1983, while
living deep in the Appalachian mountains. The setting comes from there. I had
come to the mountains to disappear into some dark valley and live my life out as a hermit.

I was a complete failure as a hermit. I’m way too social for that discipline.

Anyhow, the story stayed in my head long after I came off the mountain. I sat down to expand it into a novel in 2017. It quickly turned into a monster, at the least a trilogy. Stewing over a novel for forty years does not make for brevity. I’ve shelved it for now but will return to it as soon as 8 Murders gets published.

This one features an ambivalent messiah, a wandering Jew, and a cast of many more. BTW- It spans about five hundred years. Here is the excerpt:

Chapter five: Shelby Mast Memoirs: A Home Visit

March 1932

I had to consider my position carefully. I was in The Valley under false pretenses, and I needed the abysmal pay I was getting. For one thing, I wasn’t a widow. I’d liked the sound of the name “Mast,” and there were three possible fathers for my daughter, Verity. My teaching credentials were valid, though my years of experience were imaginary. My daughter was the truest thing in my life.

The child was nine years old now and clearly suffered from a sort of mental illness that compelled her to state whatever she thought about people or situations loudly. Though this was sometimes funny, it was always awkward, and most people objected to her presence. I had named her “Sarah” at birth but changed it to “Verity” once the child learned to speak. This job allowed me to keep tabs on Verity while teaching regular students. Verity had a desk in a corner and mostly behaved herself. The other children accepted her easily.

This shaky situation had held together well enough over the last three years, but I worried about the future. I needed this job- the contract renewed annually with no guarantees. The Tolmachs seemed nice enough, but I knew they had a lot of influence on how things worked in The Valley. The matriarch, Rose, intimidated me simply by her presence. I sensed that somehow, Rose was onto me and knew I was no widow and had never been a “Mrs.” I was vulnerable on this point and feared for this fragile fraud I was living.

Still, there was the Meeks boy, gasping for his very life.

There was nothing for it.

So, the Saturday after the fight, I stood on the porch of the Tolmach house, Verity at my side. Before I could knock, the door swung open, and a slightly frazzled Rose Tolmach smiled gently and welcomed me as though there was nothing unusual about having a schoolteacher she barely knew into her busy house, unannounced.

“Do come on in, Mrs. Mast,” she said happily, “and this must be young Miss Verity! A fine young lady,” She lightly mussed her hair. “I bet you might like a sugar cookie!”. The trick was neatly turned, and Rose summoned her hellion daughters to amuse Verity.

We retreated to a small, unnaturally neat parlor, which was clearly Rose’s lair.

“I’m so glad you dropped in Mrs. Mast. I’ve been meaning to get to know you, but it seems we’re always busy with something.”

“Please, call me Shelby, and I appreciate you taking a couple of minutes for me.”

“Certainly, and I’m Rose. We don’t stand on formalities too much ‘round here. Now, I’m sure you would have sent a card if this were purely social. So, how can I help you?”

“Well, I’m not really sure how to say this, but it’s about John.”

Rose was silent.

I continued: “Please, he’s a fine boy and a joy to have around, but there was an incident this week.”

“An incident.”

“Yes, one of the boys decided to pick a fight with John. I… I’m not sure what happened, but the other boy…”

“Was it the Meeks boy?” I could only nod.

“And I’m guessing John got scared and suddenly, the Meeks boy couldn’t breathe. Is that about right?”

Again, I could only nod.

“Oh, you poor thing! It scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it, too. Is the Meeks boy ok?”

“Physically, yes. But he’s scared of his own shadow ever since.”

Rose grinned. “Serves the little prick right.”

Trying to stifle a giggle, I snorted loudly.

“Wait here, I’ll get some tea,” Rose smiled.

I had regained my composure by the time Rose returned with the tea.

Examining the contents of my mug, I asked, “What sort of tea is this?”

“Why it’s Corn tea. My father brews it. He and his girlfriend live in that cabin out back. You might want to sip slow- it does have a kick.”

“My it does, don’t it?”

“There ain’t no hurry- we have the whole tea kettle to sip on today.”

We chatted amiably for the next hour or so, sipping tea. Rose told me how John came to The Valley, and I recited my myth of how I came to The Valley. We spoke of the mystery of little boys, of the fears and hopes for daughters, and the strangeness of that winter.

Abruptly Rose said: “We need to go for a walk. There’s something you should see,” She walked back to the kitchen, “Girls, y’all behave yourselves a while longer. I’m gonna show Mrs. Mast the property.”

We gathered our coats and set off. Rose had become strange; quiet, deflecting my sallies with minimal words. I saw how this was going and quit talking.

We walked across the paddock to a pen that encircled the chicken coops. “The first time I saw it, I thought it was just some crazy accident; John and I had just finished feeding the chickens and were heading back to the house. I heard the chickens start raising hell and turned to go back, but John was way ahead of me. A hawk was diving down to grab a chicken. I heard this humming sound, and the hawk went limp. I think it was dead before it hit the ground.”

Rose nodded with her head towards their barn and started walking. “A week or so later, we were trying to get Number 12 into that chute over there for his shots. I’ve worked cattle my whole life, so I’m used to cantankerous bulls. That’s also why we generally only keep one bull. Two bulls are four times the work. We keep one at stud for some of the other farms around here and our little herd, just enough money to be worth it.

“Anyhow, I was over there by the chute waiting on Harlan and Thomas. John was sitting on the fence right about where we are standing now. Number 12 was on a hawser over by that gate.

All at once, something stirred up Number 12, and he just went wild. Rearing and snorting, he busted off the hawser and started running at me. I wasn’t real concerned- I know cattle and bulls. I was about to shut myself in the chute when I heard that humming again, and Number 12 crashed down in mid-rush. He wasn’t quite dead yet, but died right in front of me- it took maybe, a minute. I went to check on him. I looked and saw John standing in the ring. He was puzzled.”

“How come you weren’t scared, Miss Rose?” he asked me.

“What did you just do?” I said.

“John said, ’I stopped him. I thought he was gonna kill you.’”

“Like I said, Shelby, that scared the hell out of me. I later realized that John, he was scared too. Scared for me.

“He doesn’t know where it comes from. I think he can control it, but he’s got no idea about the shape of things in this world.”

“I’ve heard old tales about such things but never gave them much credence. But I was deeply shaken- I wondered if I was safe, the girls and the rest of us were safe too. That dear boy could be death incarnate, sitting right there at the dinner table. I told him we’d talk about it later.”

“Anyhow, my father, Harlan, and Thomas, and I spent the next morning talking about it. We didn’t settle much of anything. In addition to killing the bull, John had sensed I wasn’t scared. A couple of days later, something else happened that made it ok for us, having John in the house. But I can’t say we’re relaxed about all this”.

“What else happened?” I was intrigued.

“Let’s walk on a bit.”

We headed north and west from the house across a long fallow field, which was bordered by a stand of trees. Rose stopped at the tree line and indicated a low mound of dirt.

Rose spoke plainly, “There are three dogs buried under there. They were part of a pack of wild dogs that had been coming around here this past fall. I guess they got hungry because John, Bethany, and Sheryl Lynn were playing right here, and the dogs tried to attack the children. Sheryl Lynn never lies to me, and she said that just as the dogs were about to get them, She heard a big hum. John just looked at the dogs real strange, and these three dropped like they’d been shot. The other dogs ran off and we ain’t seen ‘em since.

“The girls came screaming home after that. While I was trying to settle them down, Thomas came right out here while we were still at the house. He said the dogs didn’t have a mark on ‘em, and he buried them straight away.”

Our eyes locked. Rose went on, “You’re the second person we’ve told.”

“Who is the first?”

“I’m getting cold. Let’s get back to the house. We’ll talk about the rest when we’re warm.”

We made our way back. Verity was loudly telling the girls about flaws in my cooking while we slipped back to Rose’s lair and took fresh cups of tea.

After mumbling about the cold, I asked: “So who was the first person you told?

“Furman Byrd. The man can be trusted with the truth- he uses it only when he needs to, and he can keep a secret. I happen to know you are aware of that.”

I felt the world fall from beneath me- first, the boy, and now this. “You- you know? About me?”

“‘Course we do darlin’. You don’t think we’d let just anybody teach school, here do you? We also know you won a couple of essay awards in New York; I even read a couple of your poems they published in The Review. You should get back to writing as soon as you can. You are good.

“I was born in this valley- I’ve traveled some, but I’ve lived here my whole life. We may be country, but we aren’t ignorant. You are simply the best teacher we’ve ever had here, and I sincerely hope you’ll make your home here. And don’t you worry about Pam or any of those Cross-Road Church bitches. They’ve got secrets too, and I can and will burn ‘em down in a heartbeat. They know it, too.”

I managed: “So you know there was no Mr. Mast?”

“’ Course I do. Half the firstborns in this valley came six months after their mamas got married. ‘Taint nothing new. I admire your gumption though, not snagging some nice young man to ease the burden,” Rose continued, “No matter what you say to me next, your position and your secret are safe. Just us gals, you know.” Again, Rose looked directly into my eyes.

“So yes, I know, and now, you know we’ve taken in a child with death in his very being. But you also know he is a sweet person, except when he or a loved one is directly threatened.

“He will need to be educated very carefully. Will you help us?”

I was tearing up as we clasped hands.

When I returned home that night with Verity, I carried a large pail containing frozen number 12 steaks, walked with a slight wobble, and I had been hired to tutor John Medford for an unspecified amount of time after regular school hours.

Archival Note #3:

Starting at this point in the narrative, I will occasionally interject some of the accounts of John Medford’s tutelage as recorded by Shelby Mast, wherever appropriate. These sessions took place almost daily during John’s early years in the Valley.  I do not believe they are exactly word for word accurate, though Shelby took reasonably extensive notes for each session. Between 1961 and 1964, she and I, using her notes, spent many hours faithfully reconstructing the conversations that took place.

It is important to bear in mind that Shelby was employed by the Tolmachs, and she coordinated her topics and tactics weekly (and sometimes more frequently) with Rose, Peter Wales, and Thomas. Harlan rarely took part in these meetings, but he did keep up with things in general.

The complete collection of “The Tutelage Notes” is available on our website or on Amazon.com in Hardback, Paperback, Kindle, PDF, or audio formats.]