Every night he watched them, this strange trio, the two men and the woman (that is what it looked like, a woman, that is what it appeared to be in the darkness), make their way by foot along the side of the highway and go over the railroad tracks and disappear to goodness knew where.  Then, maybe an hour or two later, they would return the exact way they had come, except the men would be toting cloth sacks loaded with something, and he could almost hear them, even across the road, grunt and groan with their new burden.

The woman did not make the trip by foot, however, because she had no legs to carry her, and she did not carry a sack because she did not have arms to balance such a weight.  She was mainly a torso, a miniature trunk with a large head of whitish hair, that the men had secured to this kind of trundling table, this flat, round surface that moved upon rollers.  It reminded him of an altar, a plinth, and the woman, if that’s what she was, was a kind of malformed deity being pushed back and forth by its subalterns.  He could pick out her deformities in the successive electric lights secured by cedar poles along the road and because he had excellent eyesight, twenty-twenty vision.  She had legless feet and armless hands, all of which appeared useless and incapable of motion.  She wore the same colored dress night after night with the sleeves and legs cut away to allow her stumps to “breathe.”  The two men with her appeared young and scruffy.  Each sported full beards and wore caps and denim shirts and blue jeans.  They were slender and long-limbed.

He didn’t know these people.  He didn’t know many people in that town.  He was newly arrived there and had taken a job as a night watchman at the local hardware store.  The store had suffered a number of break-ins of late, despite the installation of surveillance equipment,  and the owners hired someone to keep a watch on it.  He didn’t know if the job would be permanent or not, and it didn’t offer very much money.  More than likely he would have to find another job during the day regardless of what happened with this one.  But it was a start.  That was how he looked at it: a new beginning.  He had had some trouble in his former hometown in the county next to this one involving drinking and drugs and not being able to hold a steady job.  His mother and father, truly broken up about the situation, had reminded him that he was no child anymore.  In fact he was close to thirty years old.  It was time he grew up and took care of himself.  And afterwards, with tears in their eyes and hoarse voices, they showed him the door out of their house.  It was all right.  He understood and didn’t hate them for it.  They were right.  So he moved south, thirty miles down the road, to the little town where the textile plants, once mighty and thriving, had all but died out and the people seemed friendly enough.

And now he not only had a new job but a new diversion: watching the uneven threesome make their mysterious trek back and forth in the night.

After a week of such perambulations, he decided to see if he could find out anything about these people without leaving his post at the store to go up and ask them himself.  One morning after his shift was done and the store owners had arrived to replace him, he ambled to a diner on the same side of the highway as the hardware store to get his breakfast.  He had finished his meal and was drinking a second cup of coffee when he glanced up at the waitress, a middle-aged, black-haired, pale-complexioned woman in a white apron, and asked her without prelude about the woman and her two companions and their nighttime ramblings.  The woman froze at the counter a moment to consider then shook her head slowly, absently, and said, “Sugar, I ain’t got no earthly idea who or what you’re talking about” and went back about her business.

“I do,” said a man several seats down the counter.  He was huddled up in a green plaid jacket and wore a felt hunting cap despite the morning’s mildness.  The remains of his breakfast lay in front of him.  He had been staring down into his coffee but looked up at the inquirer and said, “Incest.  That’s how come she’s like she is.  Her mama and daddy was brothers and sisters.  The boys is her brothers but by a different daddy.  They’re all dead now, all three of them, the mama and the two daddies.”  The felt-capped man paused for another sip of coffee.  “Ain’t no good ever comes from that kind of situation, ever.  It not only messes up the body; it ruins the mind too.”  He said no more but looked down at the grease-smeared plates before him.

His questioner, the night watchman, was not quite satisfied.  “But why all the traveling back and forth night after night?”

The felt-capped stranger smiled and looked back up.  “Your guess is as good as mine, mister.  God knows what goes on in a diseased mind like that one.  What’s funny is that family had money once.  And a good house and a good name.  Something happened.  Maybe too much pride.  Maybe they thought they were too good to breed outside of their own kinfolk.  Kept it all in the family, so to speak.”  The stranger barked a laugh then coughed then recovered.  “As far as all them night trips goes, maybe they babysitting her, them two boys.  Pacifying her.  Probably can’t sleep.  None of them.  Too miserable to rest.  They said she used to holler out at night.  Just scream like a bobcat.  That’s what they say.  I never heard her.”  He stopped to reflect.  “Fine old place they have.  Had.  Two story. Out on the old Adeline Road.  With columns and banisters and all that fancy trimming.  Fine as a plantation home, which it might have been.  Ain’t too far from here either.  Couple of miles or so from the railroad tracks.  “Edith, you ever seen that house?  You ever been there?”

The woman, after a pause, shook her head, at first absently then more vehemently, as though to indicate that she wanted no part of the conversation’s topic.  She rubbed the counter vigorously as she answered him:  “The only thing I know is, George, that nine days out of ten you full of crap, and that’s because on the tenth day you ain’t saying nothing!”

George, for his part, laughed into his coffee cup.

“But they carry bags,” the night watchman put in.  “Sometimes the bags are heavy and weigh them down.  Other times they don’t seem to be a burden at all.  That’s when they must be empty.  Wonder what that’s all about?”

After a moment the felt-capped stranger shook his head slowly and nodded to the waitress.  “Like the lady said, mister, I ain’t got no earthly idea at all about that.”

He left the diner unsatisfied but more intrigued.  He could not sleep that day for thinking about what the man at the counter had told him.  He lay awake with all the possibilities of what went on in that once-fine house and what it meant for those three people to travel back and forth night after night, where they went, what they sought.

And later that night, alone in the darkened store, when he heard the squeaky trundling of the bizarre conveyor, the little altar, and went to the window to see the three of them, the scraggly men and the misshapen woman upon her roving pedestal, making their way through the spring darkness, he felt an almost uncontrollable urge to bolt from the store and go to them to ask them about their intentions, to satisfy his own gnawing curiosity.

Which, a week later, unable to quell his questions, is exactly what he did.

He abandoned duty, he abandoned any sort of propriety, and left the store upon first glimmer of the trio in the night.  He stood at the door of the hardware store and watched their progress across the railroad tracks, moving swiftly, toward whatever destination awaited them.  For a moment he was frozen, both his feet and his voice – for a moment he had considered calling out to them, “Wait for me!  Please!  I have so much I want to ask you!”  Then he broke from the grip of his own hesitancy and sprinted across the road and up the small hill over which ran the railroad tracks.

But they were gone.  Out of sight.  He saw no trace of them.  His pause had allowed them a getaway.  Disappointed, he first thought of turning around and going back to the store but didn’t.  He went ahead to find them.  The road by the tracks split, one half curving around a bend buttressed by a tall, white granite wall, the other running into what from the outside appeared to be a series of tree-enshrouded residences.  It was the second half he picked, moving gingerly onto the sidewalk of the right side of the street.  From the looks of it, even through midnight eyes, this was a poor section of town: the sidewalk broken in places into perilous chunks, some lawns untended, most houses one-story clapboard.  Here and there windows burned blue and bounced with television-watching.  A dog barked a single note over and over, and white street lights beat down at uneven intervals.  His imagination played with him.  He could see figures emerge from the shadows and come at him with hostile intent.  He could sense eyes peering at him through parted curtains.  Perhaps someone had already made a call to the police to report him.  (But would anyone really want the police here?  He doubted it.)   These possibilities hurried him along.  He soon found himself at the end of the block and facing an intersection.  Another street of houses ran before him.  To his right the railroad tracks met a crossing.  To his left the street sloped down a hill on either side of which stood more houses.  His instincts told him to go left.  For the first block he found houses in the mode of the ones on the street he had just left – one-story, almost shanty-like, the yards crowded with junk, rubber tires, old bathtubs planted with flowers, children’s playthings scattered about.  The same lone dog-bark followed him, like some sad leitmotif connecting one forlorn street to the other.  But when he crossed to the next block, it was as though he had entered another world.  The houses were brick-fronted and anchored clean, neat lawns.  Gardens grew in some yards.  Rose vines climbed trellises.  All lights were out save for one or two burning above brick porches.  He followed this block to its end.  He found himself at another intersection where traffic lights signaled red and green despite there being no cars beneath them.  He crossed over with a bit of quickness to his step, as though some vehicle might materialize out of the darkness and bear down on him.  To his left stood Veterans’ Park, and it was there he chose to go.  Maybe the brothers had conveyed the woman there for some sort of perverse amusement.  He entered the park through the modest tennis court and was soon absorbed in a tunnel of pine trees and maples.  The walking paths had been divided into three levels, each of slightly increasing distance.  He chose the lowest.  It would be the easiest for anyone in their physical circumstance to travel.  A lonely swing sat near the path’s entrance, mute and still.  Up ahead to the left huddled a gazebo; he entered it briefly but found nothing except the smell of fresh paint and a short patch of pine straw.  He left it and continued on.  The path encircled the park’s lake.  The moon threw down a cool sheen of white light on the water, and there was silence except for the occasional honking of a duck or goose.  He made it to the other side: still no sign of anyone else.  Another swing set appeared, just as desolate as the first, and beside it were a slide, a sandbox, and some monkey bars.  For a moment a vision, both comic and terrible, appeared to him of the woman attempting to maneuver the bars with her armless hands, her miniature torso swinging back and forth wildly.  But no one was there.  Not a soul.

He completed the path and ended up where he began, at the tennis court.  He was a young man but one with a bit of a paunch and a habit for tobacco.  He had winded himself with the walk and took a few moments to recover before heading back to the hardware store.  He experienced a second wave of exhaustion by the time he made it to the railroad tracks and leaned against a stop sign.  Not more than a moment passed before he heard a noise behind him.  He turned.  There they were, the three of them, a human juggernaut: one brother pushing the woman on her pedestal, the other acting as a kind of guide, a clearer of the path before them.  They flashed past him, moving quickly over the train tracks.  They spoke to each other, the men anyway, but their words were indecipherable.  They laughed but never acknowledged him.  The guiding brother held the same burlap sack which looked heavy and bumped against his thigh.

He stepped away from the stop sign, as though he might go in pursuit of them.  “Hey!” he called after them.  “Wait!”  But they didn’t.  They continued on down the road, lit up occasionally by a random street light, until darkness swallowed them up completely.

The following night he waited for them at the stop sign, but they did not appear until after he had given up and retreated to the store.  The night after that he watched from the store window until they appeared; then he went after them.  They moved so fast!  It wasn’t long before he lost sight of them but continued on anyway.  He arrived at the same intersection he had come to two nights earlier.  This time he did not turn left or right but moved straight ahead, crossing the street into a short block of one-story, white-washed houses with low roofs and miniscule lawns, past a broad brick and wood building housing a roofing outfit, then past a smaller building where gravestones were sold, stopping, finally and appropriately, at a cemetery elevated above the street and encased by a cement wall topped by wrought-iron railings.

Right away he could hear the sounds of voices and labor: the rhythmic rise and fall of something hard and solid hitting the ground repeatedly.  They were here.  He knew it and raced up the sidewalk to level ground to have a look, to confirm his instinct.  Maybe fifty feet away, over the tops of headstones and special, more elaborate markers decorated with marble seraphim and praying hands, he could make the three of them out in the dark.  Indeed one of the brothers was using an instrument, a pickaxe or shovel, to assault a gravesite while the other looked on.  The woman, on her pedestal, watched as well and could herself have been mistaken for a marble monument among so many others.  She had the same kind of stilted regality.

He watched them only a minute or so more.  A panic seized his whole body and made his heart accelerate.  Graverobbing.  They were graverobbers.  And what if they were caught and he near them, so close as to be considered an accomplice?  He rushed away from the cemetery, back down the cement sidewalk, retracing his steps until he found himself back at the stop sign at the railroad crossing, at first too preoccupied with catching his breath to notice that the hardware store across the road was lit up bright as day and a pick-up truck sat in front of it, shiny from the lights inside.  Another wave of panic refueled his oxygen.  He took off across the road at a sprint.

Mr. Alexander, one of the two brothers who owned the store, sat waiting for him in a hardback chair at the front of the store, near a panel of washers and screws.  He was smoking a cigarette, flicking the ashes into a Styrofoam cup.  Directly over his head perched a red-lettered NO SMOKING notice.  He stared straight at his night watchman like a father waiting for a child who has broken curfew.

“Sometimes I can’t sleep,” he began slowly.  He was a medium-sized, white-haired man in his late fifties wearing silver eyeglasses that caught glints from the store’s fluorescent lighting.  “Worrying about everything.  This business mainly.  Times ain’t good for nobody.  And people breaking in here don’t help none.”  He took another drag and sighed out the smoke.  “So where was you tonight?  Out chasing tail?”  He laughed and coughed and took a moment to recover.  “Ain’t what we paying you for.  Paying you to stay here and keep a watch on things.  Instead you left it wide open for anybody to come in and pick it off.  Ah Lord.”  He sighed, sucked in more smoke, let it go.  “Looks like we just going to have to break down and put in one of them surveillance systems.  And they cost out the wazoo too.  But the old ways ain’t working no more.  People don’t take pride in a job no more, when they ought to count theirselves lucky to have one.”

So he left the store just before dawn, newly unemployed, and went back to his room and lay on his bed in his same clothes.  Mr. Alexander’s insomnia proved contagious.  But he didn’t worry about losing his job.  Instead his mind buzzed with questions about the three siblings and with the image of the brother knocking the implement into the ground.  For what reason?  They behaved brazenly about it, not caring who might come upon them.  Whatever it was they sought in the ground, more than likely it was that they carried home in the sack.  Could they be looking for trinkets, valuable things buried with the dead that they could sell?  Was this their livelihood following the ruin of their family and their home?  He could go back to the cemetery and confront them, but he didn’t like the idea.  It posed too much danger.  The best thing would be to go to the house itself –while they were out doing their midnight scavenging – to see what he could find.  He wouldn’t be satisfied until then.

That night he waited for them to pass.  He stood in the shadows not too far from his former place of employment, the hardware store, and watched the three of them go off to their dark ramblings, their scrounging, whatever it was that they planned to do that night.  Then he headed in the opposite direction, fleet-footed, not knowing how much time he had, looking for Adeline Road where, according to George, the felt hat-wearing diner, the strange family still kept its homestead.  It was a foolish search.  The night was huge and black and nearly moonless.  He had no idea where he was going.  He didn’t know the town well enough.  It was too late to go to someone to ask directions.  He stumbled and fumbled into dead ends and cul-de-sacs.  In some places he encountered nothing but brush or intimidating pine tree stands  or ditches that yawned wide from the road and would swallow a man whole.  It was then he felt an almost childish panic at being lost.  He had to choke back an urge to holler or cry.  And then he took off, scrambling to wherever he could see lights in household windows.  His footsteps awakened an untethered, hostile dog.  The dog, a mere frantic, feral shape in the dark, chased him for blocks and yards before it quit him and went back home, which it knew through instinct alone and nothing else.  But this encounter proved fortuitous for the man; at the end of it, he stood at the entrance to Adeline Road.  A green street sign, which he could barely make out in the poor night light, verified the fact.

From what he could see, however, Adeline Road was a virtual jungle.  Bramble covered both sides of the road.  The pines and oaks were nearly swallowed up in kudzu grass.  And there were only the faintest demarcations of a path cutting through the chaos.  No house lights shone.  There were no street lamps.  He would have to pick his way carefully up Adeline to find what he sought – the house of the woman on the plinth.

He went forward slowly, putting his foot down with the constant apprehension that he might step upon something alive which would not forgive him the offense.  Tree frogs sang all around with throats hot and crusty, suddenly ceasing before resuming their piercing dirge.  Something he could not see touched his face and brushed through his hair.  Spider web.  From where it hung he didn’t know.  He just beat it away from his head as best he could and rubbed off the remains on the back of his pants.  He must have gone three dozen feet or more before an old Spanish style villa house appeared on his right, its columns sloping, its overall bone-whiteness lighting up the night.  This could not be the house he was seeking.  He knew it.  It was one-story for one thing.  For another, it did not have the dignity of the aristocratic, not even faded aristocracy.  There was something loose and tawdry about its structure and its appearance on Adeline, exotic and tasteless, and he saw no need to hike up the driveway that wound down from the house’s porch to explore it.  So he moved on.

When he had gone what he estimated to be a whole mile, the moon broke through the black clouds, leaving them ragged and tawdry, and flooded the land with fluorescent illumination.  Everything had a stark, ghostly confusion about it, as though a cataract had dropped over both his eyes.  He waited a moment for his vision to adjust to the this new light, and when it did he became excited, for he was sure he saw up ahead a chimney stack peering over a line of pine trees.  He picked up his walking pace to a near-trot in the direction of this new sight, northwest, where it rested on a slight incline.  As he got closer, more details emerged coyly through the trees’ obstruction, revealing, in pieces at least, a house still grand in the judgment of the late-night darkness.  And when he came to the threshold of the grounds proper, he stopped and studied the edifice in front of him.  It indeed stood two stories and had a definite air of importance around it, even with no lights shining in the now dead, moon-blinded windows.  He had expected a wraparound porch, a gallery of some kind, extending beyond the front door and stretching around both sides of the house.  That was the way he pictured all such homes in the country South.  But no such thing existed here.  And when he thought upon the history of the family that owned it, of what he had been told of its character, the absence of such a free, open space made sense.  He could not exactly envision them as the kind of people who would while away the sweltering hours outside with small talk and pleasant anecdotes.  Instead there was a small porch offset on either side by long, wide windows now muffled by moonshine.  Two more such windows stood on the second story.  The roof was gabled and ended in the long gray finger of the chimney.

So there the house stood.  He had no doubt of it.  But why had he come to it?  What did he hope to find?  He wasn’t sure exactly: an answer, he supposed, to what that woman and her two brothers meant, if they meant anything at all.  But he would find nothing just standing there, so he edged closer to the house, wading almost through the high-grown sedge and weeds, until he reached the front porch.  Would the three of them be so conscious, so careful as to lock the front door?  For some reason he thought not but was proven wrong when he tried it.  It stood solid against his efforts to open it.  This disappointed him.  He walked to the far end of the porch and peered out into the night but saw nothing except more moon-bathed trees and grass.  He left the porch and stalked around the house’s left flank but again saw nothing of promise as far as an entry into the house.  He could smash one of the windows and get in that way, but for some reason he rejected that solution (he wanted it to be easy so no one would find a trace of his having been there) and moved on to the back of the house, where right away the moon pointed out something to him: an old fashioned ground door cellar peeping out through the grasses.  A rusty lock secured it close, of course, but at this point of desperation and curiosity he lost all sense of propriety and sought something with which to break the hasp.  He hunted the dark, overgrown yard until he came upon a piece of stone, a rock, that took both his hands to hold and carried it back to the cellar door.

He dropped it again and again until he heard the lock break.  Then he yanked aside both panels of the door and stared down into the black hole.  The moon traveled only so far down the stone steps then gave out.  He went down the steps, and when there was no more moon, he brought out his cigarette lighter and flicked a flame into life.  It gave off very little light, certainly not enough to make a safe trip around the unknown cellar.  Still he shone it round and could make out the brick walls and cement floor.  He took diffident steps, and the farther in he got, the deeper, a cacophony of odors met him: must, damp, rot, and others which to him had an industrialized tint.  He became so absorbed in his revulsion to these smells and in trying to differentiate their individual scents, he lost mind of his walking and tripped on some inconsistency in the floor.  Losing his balance, he flung the lighter into the darkness and lost it.  He braced himself against the wall and stared back at the patch of moonlight so many feet away now.  He thought a moment of going back and leaving the house but instead moved ahead, patting the wooden rafters of the ceiling with both his hands in hopes of coming upon a light switch or dangling chain attached to a light bulb.

And then it happened: he put his foot down where there was no more ground to meet him.  He dropped what must at least have been five feet and remained so crouched on solid concrete flooring as pain seared his joints.  He stood right away, as though to protect himself from humiliation more than pain, but his knees sagged from their new wound and he had to grab onto the wall to keep from falling again.  After a moment of steadiness he reached above his head once more to hunt for a light and found it this time; a chain descended from the ceiling.  He gave it a hard yank.  A single, bare, dirty bulb popped into white, garish life and showed him the cement shelf off which he had just fallen.  It also showed him the narrow cubicle in which he stood, impenetrable except for the wooden door that stood in front of him.  Maybe one or two other grown men could have fit into the space at the same time.  The shock of having fallen wore off, replaced by growing panic and a renewed pain in his knees.  In fact they felt as though they had been set on fire, and he leaned on the floor to keep from falling again.  Suddenly the secrets of the house did not matter as much to him.  All he wanted now was to leave the place.  But he wasn’t sure he could clamber back up the shelf and return the way he had come.  His hands smarted fiercely and his knees hurt more by the minute.  He was sure that if he looked down he would find them stained through his pants with blood.  In fact he could feel such wetness without looking or touching.  Maybe he had broken something.  All he knew was he wished he could sit down a moment and see how much strength he could recover before carrying on.  It would be best to stumble through a passage in the house on the way out, if such passage existed, and to use his arms to grab onto things should his legs fail him.

The door on which he propped himself stood between him and possible freedom, but he felt sure it was locked and was surprised to find it give way to the shove of his shoulder.  He found more darkness on the other side of the door and smacked the inside of a wall, nervously trying to find a light.  His hand came upon a conventional wall switch and he flipped it.  The room lit up in a dead-white light, the light of translucent flesh, but he had no idea what he was staring at.  It was a puzzle, a maze that took a few moments to sort through and bring into any kind of order.

What he noticed first was a door parallel to the one in which he stood, some ten feet or so away.  Between him and it stood an old rickety wooden table whose blue paint peeled badly and left flakes on the hard floor.  On top of it lay a set of men’s clothing, a dark suit consisting of coat and pants and black shoes.  After staring at it a moment and adjusting to its presence in the unreliable light, he realized someone was in the clothes and lying on his side as though taking a nap.  He grew quickly heartened at the appearance of another human being.  “Hello!” he shouted and lunged into the room to make acquaintance, possibly to establish alliance.  But he fooled himself.  His weak knees gave and he fell.  He grabbed the edge of the table and took the whole thing to the floor with him.  The table fell upon him, as did the man on it.  “I’m sorry!” he hollered, but when he opened his eyes he found himself staring not into the face of a newly-awakened man but of someone, something that had ranged far beyond sleep into another country altogether.  It was hardly a human face at all anymore: some flesh remained, now hanging inches from him in fetid strips like pieces of Spanish moss, but the eyes were gone and mostly a skull grinned down at him; the hands had grown skeletal as well.

He screamed and heaved the body off him and attempted to rise.  Pain battered his legs fiercely, though, and he wound up back on the floor.  He took this interval of helplessness to make inventory of the rest of the room, and what he saw sickened him and made him cry out a second time.  On wooden shelves one might have found in any perfectly normal home rested what could only have been human bones, long and short, leg bones, arm bones, hip bones, and at least one fully intact rib cage, washed cleaned and as bright and shiny as something artificial purchased in a store.  Cabinets stood open above the shelves and revealed skulls stacked one upon the other as though they had been dinnerware.  They too had been scrubbed to a vivid whiteness, made clean from anything rotted.  And pervading everything was that industrial scent.  Formaldehyde?  Rat poison?  He wasn’t sure.  He moved to try to stand again, but his legs wouldn’t have it – he was sure now he had broken something – and he returned to the floor, not sure how he would escape.  He propped himself on an elbow and stared at the unopened door, certain it was his means of leaving, if only he could get to it.  He could crawl, he supposed, then pictured himself in such a hapless effort and abandoned the idea.

Then, as though he willed it, as though his need had legs and hands of its own, the door swung open in a long, slow arc.  Darkness stood behind the door, and silence too, and it was the silence he dreaded more.

“Hello?” he called out.  “Is anyone there?  Help me please!?”

A moment of further silence followed his plea, and then came a quiet squeaking which seemed to emanate from far away and to take forever to culminate.  When it did, the doorway was filled with a presence that was both strange to him and familiar.  From his panic it took him a moment to realize who it was: the woman on the plinth, the partial human being perched on her ambulatory pedestal.  He could ignore the absence of her limbs concealed by short, flounced sleeves and a hemline that left a small crinoline pool around her waist.  Her face commanded his attention, framed in duplicate waves of soft white hair.  She stared down at him with what was clearly anger but which paled her face further instead of reddening it.  She moved her lips vehemently, though no sound came from them.

“I’m sorry,” he said to her.  “I know I shouldn’t be here, but…”  He could not finish.  He did not know why he was there, and he felt whatever answer he might offer would not satisfy her.  And the woman didn’t seem to care.  She just continued to speak silently, as though pronouncing an incantation over him.

He reached up to her beseechingly and was so intent on winning her mercy, he did not hear the footsteps of the two brothers, who seemed to have come from out of nowhere.  He wasn’t aware of them at all until they land hands on him and lifted him from the floor and held him against themselves, giving off the stench of dirt and flesh and formaldehyde.  They twisted his neck so that he faced the ceiling, but out of the corner of his eyes he could see their wild, white grins.  They spoke indecipherable words to him and to each other and grunted and laughed.

“Please!” he managed to get out, and that was when one of the brothers closed a rag doused with something potent-smelling over his face, and he almost instantly lost all panic and concern and the very room itself.

It was an unusual summer for the little town, a place not used to startling events.

First came the reports of the graverobbings, the seemingly random violation of resting places at various cemeteries around town.  For about a three week period someone had disrupted gravesites, opening the caskets, removing corpses, taking things from them – parts of the remains, not any jewelry or other such valuables – but bones.  Skulls were missing, as were leg and arm bones and even ribcages.  It was a ghastly occurrence, of course, and had the townspeople speaking of it in varying tones of disbelief and disgust.  Some even joked about it: “Well, at least they’re robbin’ the dead and not the livin.’  That leaves me out!”  But when it was clear these morbid “visitations” had become epidemic, and the police had begun a more rigorous patrol of the cemeteries, they stopped.

Not long after these incidents, another oddity caught the attention of the townspeople: the appearance, in full daylight and in conspicuous places, of a rather bizarre quartet: three men and woman.  They seemed to burst out of thin air, just to be there when only seconds ago they hadn’t been.  They were noisy and rowdy, talking and laughing at such volume as to draw attention, but no one ever understood the subjects of their conversations or the punchlines of their jokes.  It was almost as though they had their own language.  Two of the men, lean, lanky, and perpetually unshaven, were brothers, and the woman, an albino missing both her arms and legs, was their sister.  Theirs was an irredeemably ugly story and not recounted except by those who enjoyed the exploitation of the unfortunate.  The woman’s condition had resulted from the copulation between a brother and sister, occupants of a fine old restored plantation home on the town’s outskirts and owners of a name that once commanded respect and even affection.  How they had come to such calamity never became clear.  There were contradicting stories of jealousy and greed and attempts to keep the sister from leaving the homestead for good.

Because of her infirmity, the woman had to be pushed from place to place by one of the brothers on a makeshift carriage, almost like a baby stroller, with a flat surface on which she sat, pale and still, like some damaged work of sculpture – as did the third man.  He too lacked extremities, and he too was conveyed by a brother on a contraption similar to the woman’s.  No one knew who he was though.  A missing brother?  Someone who up to then they had successfully kept from public view?  He had come from nowhere but fit right in with his three companions.  From time to time, as they rushed past business fronts or down the streets of the town center, he could be seen flashing a smile at something said by the man pushing him.  There was even speculation that he and the woman, impossible and grotesque as it might seem, might be involved in a romantic liaison.  They certainly looked like a couple.

Some wanted to find out for sure.  They even had the audacity to suggest going up to this “family” and asking point-blank what the state of the relations were.  But invariably they backed down, realizing it was best just to let them be.

Randall Ivey

Randall Ivey teaches English at the University of South Carolina, Union and is the author of two short story collections and a book for children. His work has appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies in the United States and England.

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