The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.18 Under the Juniper Tree

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.

1887

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Salt Lake had become a bustling metropolis and a hugely important way station for travelers journeying to and from the west coast. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, with the driving of the Golden Spike. No ghosts witnessed this event, as it was north of the boundaries of the Hereafter. But by that year, and in the years that followed, the population of Utah skyrocketed. The state was well on its way to surpass a quarter million people before the end of the century.

Although war had been averted between the Mormons and the “Amerikats,” the distrust and the paranoia of the winter of 1857 and 1858 lingered. Brigham Young died in 1877, and with his passing, tensions eased. But after all that had transpired, the government of the United States still had a long way to go before they would trust the people of Utah. As Billy and Mattie were struggling to find their way in the strange world of the Hereafter, statehood for Utah was still at least a decade away. It would only come once the Mormons disavowed polygamy.

Much changed for both Billy and Mattie in the year 1887.

In the thirty years since his death, Billy felt like he had finally made a degree of peace with what had happened to him. No longer did he fear the onset of madness, as he had in those early years—especially after the murder of the Sowersbys. And although his mind was still tortured by loneliness and sexual longings that he could not fulfill, he felt that he was no longer the confused, angry, and hopelessly sad boy he had been in those first years.

Instead, he found solace in learning, and in trying to find meaning in the path God had chosen for him.

By 1887, Billy was spending much of his time in churches. He attended services in Mormon and Catholic houses of worship, and also private services at the homes of Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist families that were now living in the Salt Lake Valley. For many days at a time he would sit in churches and temples in contemplation of what this dark journey he was on must mean—and in that meditation and contemplation, he slowly found a calm center to which he could retreat. He thought of it as the temple of his own soul, and he found solace in that temple often.

Contemplation and meditation consumed more and more of his time. There were days, and even weeks, where he would sit in a safe place and watch the world and his own thoughts, without moving. At first, he found these safe spots on the grounds of the holy buildings that were being constructed throughout the new and thriving city of Salt Lake. But soon, he found as much peace in being in the desert and on distant mountain peaks as he did from being in the city itself.

Being untroubled by the need for food, and without the aches and pains a body was normally susceptible to, he could easily sit for days in silent introspection. And it was through this long and lonely contemplation that he eventually dampened the burning sexual obsessions that nearly drove him mad in his early years.

As the great Mormon Temple was being built, Billy would sit like a gargoyle in its highest spires for weeks at a time, moving only when the work required it, or when a new and higher spot for his contemplation became available. In this way, he felt like he was as much a part of the temple as the brilliant white granite that made up its walls, and the gold filigree that adorned its most sacred and secret chambers.

He especially liked the winters, when he would sit, impervious to the cold, as the snow fell silently over the city. He would watch the lights of the windows twinkling in the dark, and the rhythmic click of the hooves in the streets would lull him into an exquisite state of ecstasy and joy.

Billy still returned to Mattie, but with much less frequency, and with almost no sense of urgency. Her resets became much less common, and by that fateful year of 1887, they had dwindled to just once every few months. Billy still could not see her, and he knew very little of her other than the dark pit of rage and despair that was her tortured mind. They were still linked, and when he approached her, he still sensed her fear and loathing. And if he drew too close, she still fled from him.

Slowly, like so much of his past, he began to forget her face.

His years as a living person became painted in pastels, as if the edges were blurring with age, and running together. He wondered if his memories were even real, or if his life as a boy crossing the plains with his parents had been any more than a mad ghost’s dream. He had not been reset in years, and he wondered if even the site of his death was just fantasy, or a failure of his memory.

Billy had yet to see any other ghosts. And he was convinced that whatever had happened to him and Mattie had happened to them alone. For a reason he was not worthy to know, God had chosen this strange and agonizing path for the two of them. He did not know why, but he also knew it was best not to question the will of God.

Perhaps, if I am patient enough, he thought, one day God will explain it all to me.

In the fall of 1887 Mattie had suffered a reset, and Billy had sensed it while sitting with a condemned man, in a small prison cell in the north. And although he had planned to sit with the man until his execution, as he had with many others, something about Mattie’s reset seemed especially wrenching, and especially violent. With a deep sigh, he left the cell, and began the long walk back to Round Valley. Guided, as he always was, by the tug in his mind that pointed him forever toward the mad little girl, like a compass.

It was on this journey that Billy’s world changed.

Billy was walking through the desert and was now less than twenty miles from the cabin. It had been raining that morning, but the rain had finally broken and the clouds were letting in scattered rays of sunlight. The play of the sharply angled autumn light on the wet sagebrush and sand was especially beautiful to Billy’s eyes, and he contemplated it with no thoughts other than his joy in the handiwork of God.

When he saw the old woman, sitting under an especially large juniper tree, he wasn’t at first sure what he was looking at. Despite the rain, she looked completely dry, and sat in a cross-legged position, with her hands folded neatly in her lap.

As he drew closer, Billy was convinced that what he was looking at was the corpse of an old woman. Her dress was hammered doeskin, and although it did not appear wet from the rain, he could see two deep red stains on the front. Clearly, she had been killed and left here by a passing brigand, or abandoned by her tribe. Seeing her filled him with both sadness, and a sense of wonder. Despite the wounds she had suffered, her face seemed calm and at peace. Her eyes were closed, and it was easy to convince himself that she was not dead, just sleeping.

Walking up to the figure, he knelt down and looked at her face. She was as still as a stone. He was just about to move on, when suddenly the woman he thought was a corpse opened her eyes.

Billy had never seen a ghost, so he was not aware that he was looking at one. But he also felt a shiver of terror and thrill run down his spine when not only did she open her eyes, but she tilted up her face and looked directly into Billy’s eyes.

And smiled.

It looked like she had been waiting for him, and the look she gave him made him think that his arrival had brought her great joy.

His mouth was dry. He attempted to speak, but nothing came out. He hadn’t spoken aloud in many years, and his tongue writhed in his mouth, trying to remember how to make those sounds.

Finally, he croaked out a raspy “Who…”

The old woman clearly heard him, but at first, she didn’t respond. She just continued to gaze at him with those soft brown eyes, and a look of great joy. He knew, in that moment, that the old woman knew him. That she had known him for a very long time. And that she had been waiting here in the desert for him.

What she finally said made no sense to Billy. But that she was speaking to him was enough.

“So much has changed in you, Billy. You now have two of the gifts. Now you must be patient. You will soon get the rest.”

His tongue struggled to remembered how to make words. They sounded rough and raw, even to his own ears. But at last they came.

“Who are you?” he croaked. “And how can you see me?”

The woman didn’t respond. And much to Billy’s frustration, she just closed her eyes again and now seemed unaware that he was still kneeling before her.

He wanted to learn more, but he did not know what to ask, and he recognized in this old woman the deep and profound peace of someone who was meditating, much as he had done for so many years. Although he wanted to ask her a thousand questions, he felt that to do so would be to disturb her contemplation.

Without thinking, he reached out to touch her. But his hand passed through her as if she was only a trick of light and shadow.

And with that, the full knowledge of what she was fell upon Billy, and his mind reeled.

“You’re dead too!” He cried, and his eyes went wide with the realization. Until that moment, he had thought that the old woman must be a living person. Someone who had miraculously survived her wounds and being left here in the desert. Perhaps someone that might finally breach the divide between the world that he and Mattie inhabited, and the world of the living they had left behind.

But no, the woman was clearly just another ghostly resident here. There used to be two in his world. Now there were three. And that realization, although it was astounding, made him sad as well. It dashed the illusion that he was speaking to a living person.

He did not know what to do, or what to ask. So he just crossed his legs under him, mirroring her posture. And he waited.

Billy sat with the ghost of the old woman for two weeks.

He meditated with her, and when those hours grew too long, he tried to engage her in conversation again. But she remained impassive, that small smile on her still face making her look almost like a religious painting, or an icon of a saint. He tried to touch her again, but still, his hands just passed through her like air.

Eventually, Billy felt like he had no choice but to walk away. So on the fifteenth day, he knelt before her, and promised that he would return. And that he hoped he would see her again.

As he walked away, the old voice behind him said, “Go to her now. You will be able to see her.”

Billy turned back with a jolt. But once again, the woman just sat with her eyes closed. “Go to who? To Mattie?”

Who else could she mean?

But the old woman had said all that she intended to say. And Billy eventually wandered off, leaving her alone under the tree.

Less than a day after leaving the old woman, Billy found Mattie. And this time, he did not keep his distance.

Go to her, the old woman had said.

And so he did. For the first time in thirty years, he walked steadily and deliberately toward her, guided by the inexorable tug in his mind.

When he reached her, it was dawn, and the sky was glowing a brilliant red, with streaks of purple fire snaking into the pale blue heights.

You will be able to see her, the old woman had said.

She had spoken the truth.

Billy found Mattie crouching like an animal in the black dust of the now almost completely rotted cabin shell. To his shock and surprise, she looked exactly as he remembered her from that day when the Dutchman had strangled the life out of her. Her white dress looked clean, despite the dirt in which she crouched. Her little black felt shoes were still on her feet, as they had been when her murderer had lifted her from the floor with his gnarled old hands. The only marks on her dress were a string of brilliant red drops of blood, and Billy remembered how her nose had bled in the last seconds of her life. He remembered how the blood had dripped off her lips and chin, and scattered like red jewels on the lace front of her dress.

As Billy approached, he realized Mattie could see him as well. She looked at him like an animal crouched over its kill. Her eyes blazed, and he heard a low growl in her throat. But there was also curiosity on her face. Billy knew that like him, Mattie had not seen another ghost in thirty years. Like him, she had never, since her death, had another person look into her eyes and show recognition.

“Hello, Princess…” he whispered, as he knelt in the dust, not two feet from her.

Mattie not only saw Billy, but it was clear that she could also hear him. At the sound of her name, Billy thought that for an instant there was a break in the blazing hatred that was radiating from her like the sun. But the break was only brief.

“Do you remember me, Mattie? My name is Billy. I loved your Sister Frances. And… And I loved you.”

Mattie sprang to her feet and stood facing Billy in a position that looked as if she was ready to attack at any moment. Like she would spring upon him, as deadly as a tiger.

With a trembling hand, Billy stepped forward and reached for her.

“Remember, Mattie.” he said. “Try to remember. I was your friend…”

When she sprang, it was so sudden that it caused Billy to cower and bring his hands to his face. His arms flailed, trying to ward off the sharp fingernails and teeth that the little girl seemed intent to use on him. He cried out and turned to the side, waiting for the impact.

But it never came.

Instead, Mattie flew through him as easily as his hand had passed through the shoulder of the old woman. As she passed through him, she swung her arms wildly at Billy’s face. But she only ended up sprawled in the dust beyond where Billy stood.

You now have two of the gifts. Be patient, Billy. You will get the rest, the old woman had said.

“Mattie…” Billy spoke softly now and turned his pleading eyes upon her. “Please tell me you remember me.”

Slowly, the little girl croaked out four words. It was clear that she hadn’t spoken for as long as Billy, and that speaking was coming back to her only with difficulty.

“You’re… dead…. Billy…. Travers…” she said, pronouncing each word as if it was bitter on her tongue.

Billy’s heart felt as if it would stop beating at any moment, and part of him wished it would. The ruin of the little girl before him was almost too painful to look upon.

“I am, Mattie. We’re both dead. Don’t you remember?”

Slowly, the little girl rose from her crouch. And for an instant, Billy could see in her the little girl he remembered. The little girl who had shared jerky with him around the fire, and who had looked upon him with a combination of a crush and hero worship. The little girl he had called Princess, and who had blushed and giggled every time he used that name.

Mattie stood tall and cocked her head at the boy. She reached down and took the sides of her dress in her hands. As gracefully as Billy remembered, she began to twirl, her dress flaring out around her the way it did then. A laugh escaped the little girl, but it was unlike the laugh he remembered. It was a dark laugh. A malicious laugh. A laugh that made Billy’s blood run cold.

She stopped suddenly and stared at Billy’s face. She even stepped closer to him, so she could study it more closely.

“My sister never loved you, Billy Travers,” she said, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

And with that, she broke into a maniacal laughter that rang in Billy’s head, even after she had fled from the ruined cabin, and disappeared among the brush.

After she had gone, and the tug in his head told him she was far away and still running, Billy just sat in the burned debris of the cabin, and watched the sun stream down upon the sagebrush in shimmering waves. For a long time after she was gone, Billy could hear her laugh, ringing in his ears.

The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.

For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.

To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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