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Excerpt: Family, depravity, and right and wrong collide in “Wishing Caswell Dead”

In this selection, the author offers a glimpse into the life of the character who inspired the story

2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Fiction

JO MAE PROUD

I mostly had one thing I thought about every minute of my life until the day I left Sangamon. If I have anything to say about it, Caswell will go to hell, and the sooner the better. And from time to time, I even had it in my mind to help my wishes along a bit.

Caswell was my big brother, and you know how a girl always wishes she had a big brother to look out for her and beat off the bullies and snakes and mean dogs? Well, my big brother used to sell peeks of my naked body for a cup of whiskey until my twelfth birthday, and then he started selling lots more than that for a cup of whiskey or cornmeal or even coins a time or two.

“Wishing Caswell Dead” by Pat Stoltey

When I turned thirteen years old, I was already getting a mite big around the middle. I did not need rags anymore to clean up the blood that Mama told me I should not talk about, and then Mama figured out I was with child, and she nearly slapped me to death. Caswell laughed and told her I’d been lying down with the traveling preacher, which was surely not the truth.

“Caswell’s going to hell, Mama.”

“If he goes, you’re going with him.”

“That’s not so, Mama.”

Then, of course, she gave me another slap right on my face. I did not know why Mama loved Caswell so much and hated me something awful, but it had always been that way. Even when I tried to tell her what Caswell let boys do to me, she would not listen and would slap me and scream at me for telling lies about Caswell, who was truly wicked through and through, but she thought he was her most wonderful child.

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There really was a traveling preacher, like Caswell said. The preacher rode from town to town across the prairie and wandered here and there, showing up whenever he wanted and leaving whenever he pleased. Some people were always fretting that Sangamon needed a real church and a regular preacher, but somehow nothing ever came of all that talk.

The new preacher had come to Sangamon only two times, and the first time was a freezing cold day, maybe January. He was talking to folks at the general store when I went to fetch headache powders for Mama. Mostly people acted like I was not even there unless I talked up loud, but sometimes folks would get an eye on me and decide I dirtied up the town.

“Git,” they’d say. “Git on home now.”

And if I did not move right quick, they’d take a step or two closer and look real mean like they were trying to chase away a filthy old dog with a bad sickness.

The first day I saw that preacher, though, he turned to look at me as I came in the door, and he watched me all the time I was telling the grocer, Mr. Jeremiah Frost, what I needed to buy for Mama. I paid the preacher no mind, knowing I did not even have time to warm my bare hands by the potbellied stove, because I had to hurry those powders home or I’d face Mama’s screaming and hitting.

The next time I saw the preacher was in the middle of summer. It was a fine day, and I was walking in the woods by the Sangamon River, watching the sunny spots shining through the leaves and dancing on top of the muddy water. The old scruffy dog who lived in the little place with the Indian called Fish was following me down toward the river. We were only a little ways from the road when I pulled up my skirt to my knees and waded into the water and let the black mud squish between my toes.

Then I heard the clopping of a horse moving along the road, and I turned around to see who was coming, knowing I could not count on that dog for any help since he only had one eye and three legs and no matter how brave he acted, there was not anything he could do. I was happy to see it was the preacher, because I thought he was a good man and would not hurt anybody.

The preacher did look right fine sitting up straight and tall on that big spotty horse. He had grown his hair down to his shoulders, and it was as yellow as that stuff hanging off the end of Miz Gray’s ears of corn. His eyes were blue and he had a bit of whiskers on his face but not like a real beard. I bent down and pretended to wash the mud off my feet, thinking that if he would go on by, I would not have to say anything, but at the same time wishing he’d stop and talk to me. It got very quiet there in the woods, and after a time I sneaked a look and found the preacher was sitting there on his horse, watching me with a little smile on his face.

“Good day,” he said to me.

I looked at him, wondering what he was thinking about, and the funniest feeling came over me, like sunshine and butterflies, and I could tell that preacher knew everything about me, maybe things I did not even know myself.

“You should come to the bible meeting tonight, little sister. Bring your mama and daddy, your brothers and sisters. We’ll be in the schoolyard in Sangamon Village.”

When the preacher talked, his words were strong and loud like the ringing of the school bell, but at the same time, the sound came floating over me smooth as honey dripping onto a warm sourdough biscuit. I felt like my tongue was stuck to my teeth, and I could not even swallow, so I must have looked stupid standing there with my mouth hanging open. But the preacher just smiled again and waved his hand. Then he poked that big old horse’s side with his heel to get it moving.

What he said surely would make people laugh. Bring your mama and daddy and brothers and sisters? I never saw my daddy in all my born days, and I was not even sure Mama knew who my daddy was, because she would not tell me anything about him. Mama would’ve never gone to a bible meeting, with her having the shame of her own thirteen-year-old child, which was me, being with child. And could you even think on a man as evil as Caswell showing up? All the bibles would smoke and the preacher would fall over in a dead faint.

After I started figuring on how many of the people in Sangamon were doing wicked things they ought not be doing, I wondered if there’d be anyone at that bible meeting. I thought most of the town would be right ashamed to sit before God and the preacher, especially the men that paid Caswell to drag me to the stables in the middle of the night, where they did their business on me and then snuck on home thinking nobody would know. Sometimes, I wondered if God paid even half a mind to the goings-on in Sangamon.

There was other stuff that I learned about because I’d be quiet and mostly people never even saw me. I knew that Miz Wallace, who taught over at the school and was nice as could be and gave me books and helped me learn my numbers and letters, well, she bought a bottle of whiskey from the peddler every month, and she stayed in her little house and got drunk every Saturday. On Mondays she sat at her desk with her head in her hands and made the children sit still and take turns reading real soft, almost whispering.

I also knew that Gabe Swinney, who owned the feed store, wandered around town after dark and peeked in windows. Miz Wallace was so sick and forgetful, what with her drinking and all, that she forgot to pull her curtains closed or turn off her lights when she took off her clothes, and my friend Annie Gray, who had a big farm down the road from town, went in to Miz Wallace’s house and took care of the teacher when she felt poorly, even all night long sometimes.

There are lots of things I saw, and those things made me wonder what folks thought of when they went to a prayer meeting and listened to the preacher, knowing they’d been doing secret things that were not right. Of course, maybe they were all like Caswell and did not really give a care for what God or the preacher or anyone else said.

After I’d seen the preacher at the river, I snuck back to town. Caswell was hanging out in front of the feed store, so I ducked into the alley alongside the blacksmith shop so I could watch him. He was leaning against a post, most likely figuring on what no good, mean thing he could do next. And then here came the preacher on his horse, moseying up the street right to where Caswell was standing.

Just as they were as close to Caswell as they could get, they stopped, and the preacher turned his head and looked into Caswell’s eyes like he was going to say howdy. But I saw real clear, and the preacher had a frown on his face like he thought something was terrible wrong.

Caswell made a squinty-eyed face with the corners of his mouth turned up like a smile. It was not really a smile, though. Caswell’s eyes were downright burning with meanness.

The preacher went on, and Caswell turned around real sudden before I had a chance to jump back, and he gave me that bad look like he gave the preacher, and I ran all the way home, slamming the door and making Mama start screaming at me again, which seemed like all she ever did anyway.

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Interview: Author Pat Stoltey