'He up again,' said the boy. 'That old White man.'
He had come in from the blazing, white-hot heat of the summer outdoors; only the faintest suggestion of foliage could be made out through the open door from inside the house. Originally a cinder-block garage, it had been turned over the years into a home after settling in quiet disuse for decades before that. Cleaned out and painted. That too was a long time ago.
His aunt, or great-aunt, Miz Lila, a substantial woman who had been moving about the interior on some minor chores, paused.
'What do you want with that old White man?' she asked. 'You leave him alone; he is none of your business.'
The boy jumped around a little. 'I keep an eye on him,' he said, and ran out the open door to prevent any further prohibition. He trotted across to where the old White man was standing, out in the hot light.
The house stood somewhat by itself in what had once been the center of a little town: a church, a few stores, the garage. Most of the town was long gone now. In front of the house there was an open space which was something in between a wide place in the road and a town square or plaza. Maybe there were twenty or thirty houses still standing, indifferently tenanted, in between empty lots thick with weed trees and the occasional garden. Further out there were a few fields but mostly just the trees.
The old White man was also known as 'Eli', or at least he must have told someone something like that a long time ago, and the information was faithfully passed on, as such a wonder and peculiarity needed a name, even a Biblical name. His hair and beard were white and long, although chopped at, probably by Eli himself with a pair of shears; he wore an old nearly shapeless hat and well-worn farmer's work clothes. The town's residents were wary of him, but also fond of him in a way; every now and then modest gifts of food and clothing were surreptitiously laid at the door of the shed he lived in, behind an abandoned farmhouse on the edge of the town, now well advanced in the process of returning to the earth.
Sensing the boy's presence, Eli bestirred himself. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The time has come to bring down the curse on this ungodly nation and its works.' He held his arms straight out from his sides, to the left and the right, the palms facing forward; he lifted his head slightly and squinted up into the intense heavens, almost white with the heat.
'There shall be no more coming and going, no more carrying and building, no more marrying and giving in marriage, the fields shall not grow, neither shall the corn increase,' he intoned, slowly turning. 'The bowl shall be broken and the pitcher shall be filled with dust.'
'Hit already like that,' said the boy.
Eli stopped. 'It is already like that, but now I am putting the curse on it,' he said. 'The curse is the finish and seal of it. Now, I want you to let me say this curse so I can get done with it. The curse is your reward,' said Eli. 'When all is accomplished and the ungodly nation has burned to ashes, you will inherit.'
'I don't want no curse,' said the boy. 'You can leave that curse alone as far as I care.'
'Well, that just does it,' said Eli. 'Out of the mouths of babes and innocents. Here I have been preparing this curse, the final curse, for years and you have just washed it out.' Eli seemed to be slowly folding up.
The boy said nothing, not being sure whether he had done something wrong or right.
'You can just do whatever you want with that curse,' said the boy after awhile. 'I don't care. I'm going home now.'
The trunk of a large downed tree was not far off, and Eli sat down on it heavily. He seemed lost in thought. The boy went back to the house and went into its dark interior.
'Ma'am,' said the boy.
Lila looked up from the books she had been reading. She looked over her glasses severely. 'Yes?'
'Why he look like a ghost?' asked the boy.
'He is the last,' said Lila. 'Once there were many, now he is the last.'
'The old ones died and the young ones went away.'
'Where they go to?'
Lila sighed and got up. She walked over to an old desk. In it there was a metal box; in the metal box were faded brownish cards , each with a name and address on it. She picked one up and read from it. 'Joseph Everhart. 18 Crittenden Way, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.' She turned it over; the other side was blank. 'This was from when the general store had a post office,' she said. 'If any mail ever came for this man, whoever was doing the post office could send it on, to Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a place. That is where he went. When they closed the general store they gave the box to me, just in case.'
'Was he a ghost?'
'He was a White man, if that is what you are talking about. It says he went to Philadelphia.'
'So you send him his mail?'
'There was no mail after that,' said Lila. 'I didn't have to send anyone anything.' She closed the box. 'This box is just in case.' She put it back in the desk.
The boy seemed satisfied for the moment. He drifted off to the rear of the house.
Somewhat later dogs started barking and there was a curious sound from outside, starting off small and far away and growing: a wagon wheel creaking, people talking, footsteps.
A number of people were coming up the road, mostly walking, men and women and children of various ages. In the lead was a cart pulled by a donkey. The cart was loaded with various bundles, and farm tools and cooking gear were visible as well. At the front of the wagon, on top of the most forward pile, was a small statue, a religious figure of some kind, red and black, facing forward.
Lila walked out of the house and met them while the boy watched from the door. The man leading the donkey stopped and addressed her in a language the boy couldn't understand. Lila replied similarly. The man said something, nodded, and began leading the donkey and the crowd of people forward again until they reached one of the disused houses some way down the street. It was large and in somewhat better condition than the others. The man tied the donkey in the shade of a tree there and the people went in the house. The boy gave the scene careful attention, and from his place on the other side of the way Eli watched impassively. Lila returned to the house.
'Who are those people? Why they talk funny?' asked the boy after awhile.
'They are the people from the South,' said Lila. 'I saw them coming in a dream. Now they are here. I told them where they could stay.'
'What they doing now?' asked the boy.
'They are minding their business,' said Lila.
After awhile the boy decided to see what they were up to. He went out into the light and approached the house slowly and randomly, as if he were looking for something in the street or off in the woods and just happened to be getting closer to the house. When he came to the front of the house he just happened to stop. He stared into the house for quite a while. The new people twittered in and out like birds, speaking their strange words and wearing strange garments. They were squarish and blocky, unlike the tall, gangly people the boy was used to seeing.
Finally a small girl in a bright green dress saw him standing at the gate and walked up to him. 'Hola,' she said.
'Hello,' said the boy, supposing the one word was like the other. The girl held up a doll or toy towards the boy. Thinking she meant him to examine it, he reached out, but the girl swiftly put it behind her back and giggled. Then she laughed and ran back into the house. The boy waited for awhile but nothing more happened. After some time he went off, into a field where there were old, rusty cars rotting in the sun, their paint bleached out and their windows discolored, crazed, and cracked. They were near a stand of large trees, and the boy contemplated the cars from their shadow. He did not approach the cars closely because he had been told that Eli had cursed them, or that the souls of the dead were trapped in them, or that they were the dwellings of small but vicious, aggressive animals. A few insects zoomed around them.
Later that afternoon, Eli was still sitting where he had been sitting before. The shadows had grown long and the air had cooled off a bit. Lila came out of her house and walked across the road to where Eli was sitting. He looked up as she approached.
'The old ones are all gone now, Miz Lila,' he said. 'I'm just catching up the tail end here.'
'You don't have to go anywhere, Mister Eli,' said Lila. 'You can stay right here where you have been.'
'The people from the South came. They will be coming,' he said. 'For them, I have spread out the curse against the evil, and, lo, it is diminished and will depart. The people may abide. Amen.'
'Amen, indeed,' said Lila.
She stepped forward and allowed her arm to rest on Eli's bent shoulder. 'Dear Mister Eli, dear heart, your work is finished now,' she said. 'That which was to be done has been done. You have seen it through to the end. You should go now and rest. Later the boy will bring you something to eat.'
Eli nodded a little, and got up slowly. 'Thank you so kindly, Miz Lila,' he said. 'I will indeed be going now.' He turned and walked slowly back the way he had come that morning, away from the house, across the plaza, the dust still hot from the day, out towards the shadows of the trees.