A stranger visits a rural town during a time when visitors are most unwelcome and certainly feared.
A woman of no particular memorable fashion arrived in Salient Mound, Mississippi and in twenty-four hours turned the whole town upside down and tore their world apart. The stranger arrived through the north part of town, dropped off by the bus, and headed to the church. The pastor turned her away, thinking she was just a panhandler kicked out from the larger cities. “Get out, you look God awful! We don’t need that here, we’re full up on our own towns miserable lot.”
She wore a shredded brown blouse with oversized blue jeans, she kept her hair tied back with rubber bands. She held a newspaper under her arm and when inspected it was dated twenty years earlier. Pastor Tomlin accused the lady of swindling them before she even spoke a word to him or any of the church folks. Several members of the church watched as their Father refused to shelter the old woman and with an agreement they mocked the old woman. He had cast her out of his church with no remorse or regret.
Johnny, a tall broad-shouldered man of twenty-three, grabbed the old woman and tossed her into the street. She flew into a mud pit. “Why did you come here, Lady? We have our own worries about the sickness already. Stay out.” The old woman lay in the mud staring at Johnny. Normally, he would appear as a handsome fellow, but on this day the look of spite grew in his eyes. His face contorted to a look that a year ago or any other time in his life he never constructed his face in such a pattern. Before he was kind and charitable. Several of Johnny’s friends stood by watching as their friend for years cast the old woman aside and into the mud. Each of them would have done the same.
Bethany, the owner of Motel 523, took the old woman to her tiny motel up the street to stay in until she found a more permanent place. She held her hand out to the old woman lying in the mud. The old woman stared at it as if it was a foreign object she had not seen before. Bethany kept her hand stiff out to the old woman until she grabbed it and picked herself up. Bethany assured her she would clean her up and take her to her motel to stay. Johnny, Father Tomlin, and others scolded Bethany for her indulgence for the old woman. They demanded the old woman out of their town.
“The woman needs to leave, she brings us to shame with her look of despair!” Johnny said to Bethany. Bethany ignored him, shushing him away taking the old woman by the hand to her motel. Johnny stared at Bethany. His hand twitched at his pants pocket.
“Bethany, listen, this stranger will bring others and will put our town to rest with their needs that we can not provide,” Father Tomlin said. He spoke part truth, the town church had seen more seeking shelter and medical needs but the church was not as full as Father Tomlin sometimes, proudly, declared.
Bethany stopped and pointed the way for the old woman to continue onward, then said to the group following her, “Johnny, you mind your business I’ll do what I can for this woman. And shame on you Father, she will not put our town to rest, she puts our town to the test.”
They let Bethany continue with the old woman back to her motel for the old woman to stay the night. The posse returned to their respective church and work. The night was coming and the sick were dying, more every day. Everyone in the town grew more anxious about what they were to do when it reached them and where they would go when the hospital filled.
“We’re going to have to get you some new clothes,” Bethany said, looking down at the old woman’s ragged, oversized clothing. The old woman made little acknowledgement of her attire, but merely looked at Bethany with a blank stare.
Bethany took the old woman to the store to buy her new clothes. She bought the old woman a finer light blue blouse and new jeans to wear, with a proper hair tie. The young female clerk, Lillian took the old woman to the dressing room and helped her try on her new outfits and get dolled up. An action and event the old woman had not experienced. The old woman shampooed at the salon. Not the first salon, nor the second, they had to visit three salons before they would accept a stranger inside. But the worker there was less pleased to have such an undesirable clientele. Bethany paid upfront and paid with a tip just to have the old woman take a seat. People of Salient Mound reacted rashly against the old woman with only the rarest of kindness towards her. Most were fearful.
When Bethany tried talking to the old woman she went silent. “Do you have a name?” Bethany asked. The woman said nothing, and somehow possible, said less than nothing. “Where are you from? Do you have a family? What’s your favorite color?” She kept on until the old woman spoke.
“Lilith,” the old woman said. She sat staring into the mirror while she sat while her hair dried. Her eyes stared through the mirror and not into her reflection.
“Lilith, that’s a nice name. Well, that’s a start, Lilith. We’ll get dinner and then you can rest at my motel away from all this nonsense.” Bethany looked at Lilith expecting some sort of visual response. “What’s with the newspaper?” Bethany saw it was dated twenty years ago. “We’ll have to get you something a bit more current.” She wanted to assure Lilith that everything would be okay. That these townspeople were good people, but now they lived in fear and attacked all that they were unsure about. Lilith happened to be their primary uncertainty.
Bethany took Lilith to Franklin’s Diner for a filling dinner for them both. They sat to themselves but still had the usual suspects peeking into their business upset with the presence of this old woman shaming their town. Norman and Cameron sat with Johnny, not being content to keep to themselves, and began to bemoan the existence of the poor old woman in their fine dining restaurant. Darla, one of the regulars, saw the old woman, and knowing she was a stranger, she made loud ghasts and screeches at the sight of Lilith. Her husband nudged her in her side, shushing her.
Some of the group from the church saw Lilith and Bethany eating and made it an appointment to ruin their time. They neared the old woman, Bethany backed them off belittling them for insolence. Norman told Lilith that he wanted her to leave the town and that she would never be welcomed anywhere she goes. Not to church, not to a baseball game, not even walking a dog in the park, even if she had the leash on her and that she was less than a dog. Bethany got up, and with a prompt, they returned to the bar but badly they wanted to spit on the terrible sight of the old woman. Johnny, instead, spat on the ground at the old woman’s feet.
Bethany took Lilith back to the motel and let her stay in room number four for the night. She told Lilith tomorrow she would come up with a more permanent plan and to forget the occurrences of the day for tomorrow it’ll be a new start. Lilith smiled for the first time, at least the first time Bethany had seen. Lilith even said, “I know tomorrow will be brighter.”
The town went dark that night. Clouds dissipated, but still light failed to penetrate the night start keeping even the stars and moonlight away with its black void covering the town of Salient Mound. The town went silent to go along with the dark. But for many of the townspeople, the night was not silent. It was loud, maddening and endless.
Strange happenings occurred over the night. Johnny’s daughter, Allison, went to the hospital with a bad sickness like severe flu. Her fever was above one hundred and she burned from her sweat and chilled from the night’s cold. Johnny had his wife take Allison to the hospital, while Johnny wanted to take care of the cause of his daughter’s illness.
The church gathered Wednesday night for service despite their fears of the sickness spreading randomly. They knew their Lord would protect them and protect them well. Not even one hour into the service and Father Tomlin had his whole congregation coughing and spitting up blood. They left the service, many going to the hospital, some went home, Father Tomlin went to gather his most faithful troops to do the Lord’s work.
Norman’s wife woke with black eyes and a throat sore enough to equate to sandpaper. She woke to coughing, nearly coughing out her throat. Norman did everything he could but fear brought him to drowning his own wife in bottles of water to get her to clear her throat. She died that night in their bed.
Cameron’s brother, Andrew, fell ill working at his butcher house. He immediately was taken to the next town’s hospital. The hospital lacked the staff in the emergency room. Andrew violently coughed up everything he held in his stomach until large pools of blood came up. Cameron stabbed his brother in the heart in the hospital parking lot saving him the misery of dying in torturous pain.
Marley drove home from her serving job at Franklin’s Diner having cleaned up the restaurant with just her and Franklin himself. She felt a cough, that kept on going, and on sneezing that closed her eyes as she went through the intersection of Shady Grove and Parkway, she missed the red light with the blackness of her closed eyes. Her car flipped eight times killing her and the other vehicle in the collision. Five people died that night.
Dawn had not come and yet Father Tomlin went to the motel with a posse demanding Bethany to bring the old woman, Lilith, out to leave their town. They blamed her for their misfortune. Father Tomlin, Johnny, Norman, Cameron, with five hours stood outside Motel 523 screaming at Bethany, missing only their pitchforks as they scampered around the motel with their demands and threw insinuations to the stranger that Bethany harbored inside.
Bethany told Lilith to stay indoors but Lilith saying more than she said before said, “I will handle them, my dear, you stay here, avoid the mayhem.” Bethany stood back away from Lilith as Lilith changed like the kind of glow from one who gained their confidence in a movie and it was their time to step up to bat. But Lilith changed more before Bethany’s eyes. Lilith had a volcanic glow around her that seemed to burn Bethany.
The posses grew outside from nine to fifteen as more of the town’s denizens grew sick. Bethany stayed in the motel as instructed, Lilith walked to the entrance in the lobby, glaring outside to those that before wanted her out but now wanted her head demanding she give it in payment of their sacrifices made.
Lilith had no chance of confronting her accusers, Bethany came rushing past her to confront the posse herself.
“Bethany, bring the old woman to us, we’ll leave you alone,” Johnny said. He led the posse, along with Father Tomlin dressed in his clerical clothing, to the street adjacent to the motel.
“She had nothing to do with whatever ills you all,” Bethany said. The group took several steps to the motel. Bethany held her arms out in the door entrance as a statement to the posse to stay out and to prevent Lilith from walking out.
“Lilith, be reasonable, this woman, she doesn’t belong here. You know that. You’ve been to the church congregations,” Father Tomlin said. “She must be cast out, for the Lord’s work speaks.”
“Don’t feed me your book of nonsense Father, it’s a book of lies and I shall not hand you this woman’s head,” Bethany said. She kept her arms stiff with her head leaning out speaking these words to the large crowd bearing their might in front of her. They wagged their fingers and wailed their arms around flailing their might but Bethany stood as a salient statue resolute to not let them have what they wish.
Norman came forward, “What about you Bethany? You haven’t been sick, you seem completely fine, you and that stranger.”
“What of it, Bethany? Not holding out on a cure, are you?” Cameron said. He fiddled with his hands around his back as if holding something heavy. “Do you have something Bethany, did she give you something?”
Bethany feared for her life. “I don’t have anything, I’m just trying to help somebody, something each of you use to do,” she said. “I don’t know why you all are acting this way.”
The posses took three steps closer across the street to the motel. Their movements and fidgeting became random and rigid. Bethany wanted to calm the group but knew something worse was soon to happen.
Lilith approached Bethany’s back, placing her hand on Bethany’s shoulder to allow her passage through. Bethany turned, begging Lilith to return inside. But something came in Lilith’s touch that prompted, made, Bethany step aside so Lilith could leave the comfort of Motel 523. Bethany took a step back inside her motel to watch Lilith walk out to meet the ever-increasing posse standing before her. Lilith had no fear of the posse that meant her harm. Ashes followed behind her in the wake of her footsteps towards the mob.
The group motioned towards her, appearing to bare weapons behind their backs. Johnny, Norman, Cameron, Father Tomlin, and the others approached the old woman whom they shunned, mocked, and wanted to be cast out but Lilith took them by the hand, one at a time, holding them still and guided with them to the edge of town. They walked with Lilith staring blankly ahead. Bethany, too, looked with gloom and uneasiness. Lilith took Father Tomlin’s hand, she took her right hand out of her pocket placing a black rose in his hand and with her left pointed to the woods. Father Tomlin walked out.
Johnny came next and with Lilith’s right hand held Johnny’s left out and spat in it then held her left pointing to the direction of the woods. With no recourse and no fight, Johnny walked into the woods leaving behind a town he only knew since he was two. He took five steps into the woods; five steps until he fell into a pit swallowing mud until he drowned.
Next Lilith took Cameron with both hands and took one of his and cast him out. Blood falling behind, Cameron walked into the woods bleeding until he fell upon the dirt as his first foot stepped on the growth of the trees. He laid on the dirt and branches of fallen trees until drained.
Norman came to Lilith with no clarity or thought to hold out his hands as Lilith took them with both of hers. She revealed to Norman a baseball and with an underarm throw, she tossed it into the woods. Norman ran after the ball falling to his hands and knees when he reached inside the woods. A loud snarl accompanied him and upon that he was ravaged.
The towns stranger faced their insinuations and in turn bore her own upon them. Following the four, the town’s denizens followed suit with no argument or plead as Lilith took each by the hand gifting them what they only knew and with that gift they walked into the growth of the woods falling down, or stumbling around, or some making it inside the woods to bare their test and endurance to see truly what they are made of. Bethany, freed of her bonds, never left her eyes off Lilith and never did again. She was confused about the lack of knowledge if she was saved or if she was cursed by the touch of Lilith’s hands.