Fifteen-year-old Miles Blackwell slapped the mosquito that landed on his neck, squashing it against his skin before it could bite him. So much for the expensive, mail-order “blessed” bug spray that his mother insisted he use. He was starting to wonder if the Lord really had favorite brands.
He needs to know, Miles repeated in his head, mustering his courage. He needs to know, and I have to tell him.
This informal mantra didn’t help much against the heebie-jeebies brought on by the Cades Bottom, however. Thirty square miles of west Tennessee swamp, marshland and old flood-control levees built by the WPA almost a century earlier, the Bottom was owned piecemeal by farmers and speculators, none of whom had any idea what the hell to do with it. Locals fished and hunted throughout it, a few good ole boys tried raising their marijuana in it, but mostly it was left alone and uninhabited.
Except for old Enoch.
And that was who Miles intended to visit. To share the good news.
“It’s the most important thing we can do,” Brother Megront told the teen class after church on Sunday night. “Sharing the good news will bring glory to God, and to you in his sight. It could be the difference between heaven and damnation on the last day. So whenever you see the chance, take it. And look for it.”
When Miles asked his Uncle Cletus who in town needed to hear the good news most, without hesitation he’d said, “Old Enoch out in the Cades Bottom.” Uncle Cletus told him how to find the old hermit, but also warned him, “That old man’s been there since I was your age. He’s the last one of ’em. Nobody’s seen him in years, not since the Red Scare, but I reckon he’s still there.”
“You really think he needs the good news?”
“More’n anyone else you’re likely to run across.” Then he seemed to suddenly comprehend why Miles wanted to know. “Lord, son, you ain’t thinking of going out there yourself, are you? Not alone?”
“No, sir,” Miles said promptly, secure in his belief that a lie that led to a soul being saved would certainly be forgiven.
Now Miles rode his bicycle along the top of a levee. The mosquitoes were thick in the air, but at least the useless bug spray did overpower some of the swamp’s mildewy odor. Except for the levee itself, he was far enough from town that he saw no sign of civilization in any direction.
Then suddenly, the skeeters were gone. It was as if they knew they’d find no blood to drink here.
Miles spotted the ramshackle building on a tiny island, connected to the levee by a short wooden walkway. A half-sunken rowboat was tied to a tree stump, and oddest of all, an emaciated cow stood placidly inside a tiny corral.
The trees in the swampy water around the little island looked strange, too. Gnarled and stunted, it was almost as if they lacked the energy to grow normally. They sported dead and rotted limbs, and no birds sang from their branches.
The word that came to mind from his Sunday school lessons was blighted.
Miles put his bike’s kickstand down, dismounted and checked the small volume of New Testament and Psalms in his back pocket. There was no KEEP OUT sign on the end of the walkway, but the atmosphere made one unnecessary. If the Lord were not his shield and buckler, as it said in Psalm 91, Miles would most definitely ‘keep out.’
His white button-down shirt was plastered to his back, and perspiration trickled from under his arms. Worse, he felt as if the rank waters of the swamp were soaking him, leaving him with a slimy feel he couldn’t wait to shower off.
He cleared his throat. “Uh… Mr. Enoch? Hello? I don’t want to scare you. Do you mind if I come over?”
Only silence replied. Even the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds, though present, came from a distance. Near the shack, except for the cow, he saw no other animal life.
Miles started across the walkway. At the center, his weight pressed the slats beneath the water. Although he could swim, and doubted it was more than three feet deep anyway, the thought of falling into that water nauseated him. When he reached the little island, he called again, “Mr. Enoch?” Again there was no answer.
He knocked on the shack’s door. His knuckles made a wet, damp smack against the soggy wood, and he reflexively wiped his hand on his jeans. He fluttered the front of his shirt, took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
Stepping across that threshold was like going back in time. There was no television or computer; in fact, no sign of any modern appliances at all. The floor was well-trod bare dirt, cluttered with items he couldn’t see well enough to identify. Through the tattered curtains over one window, he saw the remains of an old outhouse, which meant there was no indoor plumbing. The air was curiously dry within, as if something kept the humidity at bay.
And then, when his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, he saw the coffin.
It lay on the floor, unmistakable in its lines and curves, the pallbearers’ brass handles tarnished with time. The hodgepodge that filled the rest of the shack was cleared around it, although whether from respect or practicality, he couldn’t say. Miles knew little about coffins, despite all the funerals his family forced him to attend, so he couldn’t accurately estimate its age. But the corners were crunched and crumbling, and the wood was weathered gray with age.
His heart rattled against his ribs, joining the rest of him in the urge to flee. But he reminded himself, I’ve been chosen to bring the message. I must have strength. Bravery is being afraid but going ahead anyway, and I’m brave in Christ.
Besides, there was no proof that the coffin was anything more than a prop, or something found and used for some other purpose. The only way to tell was to check.
He cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Enoch? Are you, uhm… in there?” When there was no reply, he knocked on the lid. Unlike the door, it felt dry and solid.
He straightened up again. The air in the little hut suddenly felt still, and close, and he found it hard to breathe. His vision dulled, and for an instant he thought he was passing out. With a start of sheer terror, he realized it was now dusk outside.
How long had he been standing there?
And then the coffin’s lid opened, and old Enoch sat up.
He appeared to be in his sixties, with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail and clad in an ancient, crumbling tie-dyed shirt. And yet his sunken cheeks and papery gray skin implied someone even more ancient. He flat, dry eyes looked at Miles in confusion and said, “Who the hell are you, kid?”
“I, uh… I’m Miles Blackwell, Judge Blackwell’s boy,” Miles said, using the time-honored tradition of identifying oneself via parentage.
“Good for you. Hand my that cane, will ya?”
Miles took the cane from its place against the wall and passed it to Enoch, who stood with a groan, revealing cargo shorts and sandals. He stepped out of the coffin and closed the lid. It hit with a loud bang that made Miles jump, and also snapped him out of his semi-trance.
“Now, Judge Blackwell’s son,” Enoch said, “what are you doing here in my living room?”
Miles had to clear his dry throat before speaking. “I, uh…I wanted to share the good news with you.”
“What news is that?”
“The good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
For a moment Enoch just stared at him. Then he threw back his head and emitted a long, loud wheeze that Miles finally understood was a laugh. “You have got to be shitting me, Judge Blackwell’s son.”
“No,” Miles said, forcing himself to stay calm despite the fact that he swore, even in the growing darkness, that he’d seen the glint of fangs in the old man’s mouth. “No, sir, I’m completely serious. Jesus died for our sins. Mine, and yours. Have you been saved?”
Enoch pushed past him and went outside. Miles followed, continuing his evangelical spiel. “It’s a known fact that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, sir.”
“I think you’ve got the definition of ‘fact’ wrong,” Enoch said over his shoulder.
Miles had never seen so much foxfire; it grew everywhere, outlining the shack, the pen, and many of the nearby trees, in a blue glow almost bright enough to read by. The luminous fungus also created strange shapes, like faces and grasping hands, out of the wood.
Enoch went into the cow’s pen and took a metal goblet from a nearby hook. In the faint light Miles saw that a small spigot protruded from the side of the placid cow’s neck. When Enoch saw him staring at it, he laughed again.
“You like that? It’s usually used for tapping syrup from maple trees, but you make do with what you have, right?” He removed a rubber cap from the spigot and let a narrow, heavy stream of blood drip into the cup. The cow gave no sign she even noticed.
Miles thought he was going to vomit. “I-I-I came here to tell you that God… God… Oh, God,” he finished, as Enoch drained the cup and smacked his lips. “You are a vampire, aren’t you?”
“Is that a surprise? I figured everyone knew about me.”
“They do, it’s just…”
“You didn’t believe it,” Enoch said with a knowing smile. In the foxfire light, the blood on his lips looked black.
“Please don’t hurt me.”
“Why would I hurt you, boy? I can’t drink your blood, and if I kill you just on general principles, they’ll just come and stake me like they did all the others. Out here, I don’t bother anyone, and until you showed up, no one bothers me.”
“B-but you need to know—”
Enoch’s eyes seemed to glow with a dim, internal red light. “I don’t need to know nothing, Judge Blackwell’s son. You’ve destroyed every single one of my kind. You chased us down, hounded us, put us on trial. Remember old McCarthy on TV, with his lists of people who were vampires? They teach you that in history class?”
When Miles didn’t reply, Enoch knelt and stuck his hand into the water at the island’s edge. He lifted a palmful of mud, and gently shook his hand until it sieved out and left a pair of black inch-long shapes slowly wriggling against his skin.
“This is all the family I have left,” Enoch said. “Not much to look at, are they? Not very good at conversation, either. But at least we have the same spirit.” He gently put the leeches back into the water.
Miles felt his gorge rise, and forced it down. “God can… can f-forgive you, and save your soul, if you—”
“He didn’t save us from the Red Scare, did he?” Enoch said said as he stood. “And then they came up with that damned vaccine, and it made human blood so we couldn’t stomach it. I was turned when I was twenty-two years old, did you know that? But look at me. Living on cow’s blood has me so weak and worn out I can barely function. But even so, I’ll keep my own soul as long as I can, thank you, and you can just traipse on back to town before somebody misses you.”
Enoch gestured toward the walkway, but as Miles passed, he suddenly blocked his way with his cane. “Wait a minute,” he said. He leaned close, sniffing. “You smell funny.”
“I’m sorry,” Miles almost cried.
“I can smell your blood, you know. Yours doesn’t smell right. Doesn’t smell like the poison blood of everyone else.” He leaned close, so that Miles could, in turn, smell Enoch’s own dry, dusty breath. “Now why is that, Judge Blackwell’s son?”
“My family doesn’t vaccinate,” Miles blurted. “My daddy says that since the vaccines are made with cells from aborted fetuses, it’s against the word of God. And God also wants you to know—”
Enoch’s eyes narrowed. “Say what?”
“God can save you from the curse of vampirism, if you—”
“Not that. The vaccinations. I thought it was a law.”
“It was, but not anymore. Now it’s up to the parents. Even the president says vaccinations shouldn’t be mandatory.”
Enoch’s voice was a low, raspy rumble. “Is that right?”
Enoch put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “How old are you, Judge Blackwell’s son?”
The hand was thin, wiry, impossibly strong, and Miles couldn’t pull away. “F-fifteen, sir.”
“Fifteen. And you never had the MMRV shot?”
“N-no, sir.” And then, far too late, he understood. “Oh, God.”
“God,” Enoch said, “had nothing to do with you coming here tonight, Judge Blackwell’s son. Nothing at all.”
Miles managed to get the New Testament from his back pocket and held it up between them, its gold-embossed cross facing Enoch.
Enoch chuckled, a sound like dry leaves swirling against a mausoleum. “Oh, you dumb kid. This is the real world, not the Late Show.” Then he slapped the book from the boy’s hands and pulled Miles into his arms.
Miles tried to recite the 23rd Psalm in his mind as Enoch drained his blood, but he died just as he reached the line about “the valley of death.” He had no opportunity to appreciate the irony.
© 2020 Alex Bledsoe