The Ruined Fountain
Calhoun Beggs appraises from the porch his two unwanted guests. The first, a six-foot alligator just discovered by his crew of Hispanic laborers as they macheted through the overgrown grounds of his property off the South Carolina coast. The second, an ancient black woman who materialized out of the swamp during the initial pandemonium with the alligator, marched up the steps of the porch, uttered something in a dialect Calhoun didn't recognize, and struck him straight across the mouth. It had happened in a blink – the knotted old root of a hand flashing out and up with its gnarled and knobby fingers twisted around the trunk of some grim, ribbed, ochre-colored thing. Rebar, it turns out. A cross made from two short cords of junk rebar bound at right angles with sea grass. Calhoun had staggered backward, his mouth full of the taste of rust – flecks from the weapon, or blood.
He wipes his lip with the back of his hand and looks at her closely. She is all wet sand and scales in a dress so faded and threadbare that the petals in the floral print seem wilted. Her bare feet, rounded and overlain with ridges on the soles, and the jagged, twisting pale toenails remind him of piled mounds of the oyster beds by the ferry dock, from whence he had brought his crew no more than an hour ago. From that moist and muddy base rise the dark, sinewy mangrove trunks of her legs, disappearing into a mist of rags at her dress line and emerging again in the furrowed bark of her neck and the lithe branches of her drooping arms. Wooly tangles of silver hair hang in thick mats from her head like Spanish moss. There before him on his porch stands his surroundings in the form of woman.
"You're in big fucking trouble," Calhoun says, still dabbing his mouth.
He reaches into the pocket of his khaki shorts for his cell phone, and time freezes. In the yard stand the six Hispanic workers gazing like box turtles on a distant rock, their attention turned from the alligator to the scene on the porch. A few paces away, the old black woman, her eyes as full, round, and steady in their sockets as if they have spent all summer ripening there. On the light brown hairs of Calhoun's legs, unseen, a half a dozen of the biting gnats he has been swatting all morning, and in his hand, his phone. But there are no police here. The island is under the jurisdiction of Beaufort County, and a sheriff dispatched here would travel an hour by car just to catch the ferry, which runs only twice a day, and then another hour over the water.
"Big fucking trouble," he repeats.
The woman gestures with the rebar cross – wide swings of her arm punctuating statements made in a language whose words Calhoun seems only able to catch ever third or fourth. A speech like molasses – slow, thick, heavy. A gooey tongue with weird words she emphasizes and reiterates: gafa, joso. She raises her hand as if to strike again and two of the workers with machetes advance on the steps. The old woman pauses, says "Joso," to Calhoun, spits on the porch and descends past the workers. It occurs to Calhoun, still holding his phone impotently, to look up and see what's happening with the alligator in his yard. Gone. When he glances, back, so is the old woman.
The rest of the day passes like most August days off the South Carolina coast pass – endless bites from invisible gnats, choking humidity, heat blisters erupting around everyone's groins like volcanoes on the Pacific Rim. Calhoun phones the sheriff's office on the mainland and receives a promise that a deputy would arrive on the ferry the following day to take his statement. The alligator remains at large.
Despite the day's challenges and the rebar assault by the crone, Calhoun's thoughts leap constantly to India, and to Ravi Kadakia, his former partner in investment banking in New York. The two had purchased it sight unseen during the real estate boom, having planned to flip it for a profit. "It says here," Ravi had told him back in '06, "that John Cougar Mellencamp owns a house on this same island! And this resort! See! See!" Calhoun arrived earlier today to find a dilapidated stone house in the middle of nothing less than an alligator-infested swamp, a closed resort a mile south on an unpaved road, no John Cougar Mellencamp, and no Ravi, the latter who was supposed to have arrived a month ago with three-quarters of the property restoration funds they had set aside, which also happen to be the last of Calhoun's savings. No traces of Ravi here, and no word from him since he left. The son of a bitch, Calhoun thinks, split for India with all of it.
Meanwhile the work crew makes a new discovery – a massive stone fountain disgorged from the bowels of the marsh in Calhoun's yard like a starling from the guts of a snake. Looking on as the workers clear away the rest of the vines and brush, Calhoun wonders not how the vegetation claimed it so entirely, but how he missed the anomalous hill in this otherwise redundantly flat topography. The basin must be twenty feet across at the radius, and from the ground the lip sits up a good three and a half feet. From the middle extends an ornately carved column supporting a vacant pedestal four feet above the basin, which basin is full of black water and clogged with debris. Circling the basin, Calhoun finds, jammed into a crag below the lip of the basin, a small cross fashioned from rebar and sea grass. He holds it up, examines it, and with a curse, sends it sailing deep into the swamp.
"Amigo," calls one of the workers from across the basin, "I keep?"
Using a branch as a scoop, the man hoists from the fountain a two-foot marble statue of an elephant, dripping red and brown muck and black water. Calhoun stops short.
"No," Calhoun responds. "No, leave that there, though." He walks over to the sullied elephant statue, puzzled. This statue, and its mate, were in the initial order of items he and Ravi made months ago in New York. Ravi had insisted on goddamn elephants as yard decorations when there were a million other things to attend to first. "What's with your hard on for elephants?" Calhoun had asked. "You got elephants in your apartment, too?" Calhoun had asked in earnest, because for all they had in common – both were 27, played petanque, lived in Brooklyn, and worked for the same investment firm – having never seen Ravi's apartment, and, unshaken, Ravi had ordered the statues to be picked up when he arrived on the mainland and brought over in person. So Ravi was here after all, he thinks.
The sun dips westward into the mainland. The gnats yield to mosquitoes. Down the unpaved road to the oyster mounds Calhoun traipses with his labor crew in silence. Towering conifers line each side of the road, seeming to sway inward as they rise, as if to converge high above their heads. Calhoun feels suddenly as if he is walking the spinal column of an enormous skeleton, trapped inside a monstrous rib cage open to the darkening sky. The ferry captain calls out through the twilight. Calhoun quickens his steps.
"Old Marah give you some trouble today I heard," says the captain as Calhoun and the workers arrive. The captain winks away Calhoun's puzzled look. "I tell you when I take you here this morning – small island," he says.
"I'm glad you told me her name," Calhoun says. "Now I'll know who to tell the cops to go get."
The captain smiles. "All aboard."
"Oh, hey man. That place we – I – bought here? It's shit."
"Just old," answers the captain. "Built right after the Civil War. Rich old Confederate lieutenant come out by himself, pissed off and refuse to live under Yankee rules. Have all the workers and supplies shipped over from Savannah. Throw the whole place up in a few weeks, Gullahs say. They'd know – their land and all." He pauses, then adds, "But it's all stone. Built to last."
"This Marah bitch, she thinks it's her land? Because I got documents…"
"Old Marah try to warn you, son," the captain says. They got what the Gullahs call joso. Witchcraft. Evil spirits and shit all up around your place."
"And that's why she's been leaving her trash on my fountain?"
"Gullahs had a town here. Still do, if you can call three families a town. What that Confederate lieutenant did, he put up a house on land owned by a Gullah widow gone to bury her husband up in Charleston," the captain says. "She come back and find someone else at home.
"So she go to the man, ask him to leave. End of her. Body never turn up. But there's a lot of gators. A lot of stone stuff a fella could hide some bones underneath. And that's why old Marah say to leave. Got that gafa – the ghost."
Calhoun rocks back and forth on his sneakers, hands shoved deep into his khaki shorts, eyebrows raised and lips tight, his default you're-full-of-shit expression.
"I better get going," he says.
"You ain't riding?"
But Calhoun is already crunching oyster shells underfoot back up the bank to the road. He is as screwed as the investors whose accounts he had formerly managed, his only remaining funds needed to restore the house to livable condition while he looks for work here in the South. Flipping it for a profit? Forget about it. A fantasy from the start, he is now painfully aware.
Darkness snaps shut like a trap door. Alone on the road, Calhoun can only just make out the silhouettes of the conifers against the sky. He skuffs his feet instinctively against the sandy road, hoping not to kick anything cold and scaly.
And up ahead, a faint light glowing at the vanishing point of the road between the trees. Calhoun stops, squints. There it is again. Moving.
His breath coming in rags, he is unconcerned about tripping on alligators now. His face burns with each pounding heartbeat, especially in the still swollen gash in his lip.
I am going to fucking throttle that old bitch, Calhoun thinks.
Tearing around the bend in the road in a plume of cold sand, Calhoun vaults the property line. There ahead of him is the light, glowing faintly but steadily and gliding silently toward the house. He charges after it. Suddenly, he is on his face, tumbling, torn at ground level by brambles and thorns.
Ravi's goddamned elephant! He hadn't seen it.
He climbs to his feet, steps toward the house, and freezes at the sight of his shadow, cast by a faint light directly behind him.
He turns. Standing by the ruined fountain is a dark, slender young woman in pale light. Calhoun straightens. The world recedes. The ghost glides forward. Its lips, broad and deep, part in a perfect O, like the rim of the fountain basin behind it.
Dark. Impossibly dark, cool, wet, and still.
Calhoun senses faintly that everything has rotated 90 degrees, feels his lips penetrate the surface tension, feels the dull rim of ancient stone surrender him to a fathomless liquid into which his body vanishes without a ripple.