Monday, May 3, 2010

Ring Shout

-i-

In the middle of the sermon, Pastor Davenport came down with laryngitis. At that point, the choir director cut ahead to the communion service.

For many parishioners, this was an improvement. They didn’t like long sermons anyway. They only came for communion.

Not only did they dislike long sermons, but they had a particular distaste for the tone and content of Pastor Davenport’s sermons. After all, these were Episcopalians.

But Davenport was more like a Baptist preacher. Long sermons on sin and atonement. Preaching through books of the Bible—including books of the Old Testament, no less! Was the Old Testament actually a part of the canon?

They much preferred his bland, avuncular predecessor. How ever did the search committee make such an egregious blunder?

Pastor Davenport had only been there for about a year, and yet the church, which had been dying, was growing. He was into “outreach” and door-to-door evangelism. Organized a Bible Club at the West Ashley high school. Was a part-time chaplain at the Citadel.

As a result, the small, stately Colonial church of Old St. Andrew’s was beginning to swell with growing pains. Newcomers with callused hands were invading the sanctuary. The established families no longer felt at home.

Things where coming to a head when Davenport lost his voice. He was preaching on the devil. Possession. The occult. Can you believe it? I mean, it was embarrassing to modern ears—like a throwback to Cotton Mather.

But that’s when his voice cut out. Six weeks ago. He’d been speechless ever since. He’d seen a specialist, but the laryngologist couldn’t detect any physical cause.

However, his son, Dominic, had a suspicion. Indeed, after his dad lost his voice, Dominic had to read his sermons aloud in church. Pastor Davenport used to write out his sermons anyway.

-ii-

As soon as the family moved in, Dominic tried to befriend some of his age-mates at church. There was a troika of young men his own age, consisting of Brad Osborne, Philip Proctor, and Dustin Seabrook. They were altar-boys at St. Andrews. They also went to West Ashley high school, where Dominic was a transfer student.

There was some mysterious affinity which all three boys shared in common. Brad and Philip were pretty tight. Indeed, they were cousins. Their forebears had a long history of intermarriage to keep the major assets in the family. Still, they seemed to have a connection that went deeper than DNA.

Dustin was often seen in their company as well, but it was fairly one-sided. Dustin seemed to avoid them whenever possible. They would accost him, but he never sought them out.

Or course, Dominic also took a healthy in girls, but as an outlier he had to befriend the boys before he could befriend the girls, since he didn’t know which girls were already off the market.

He also noticed that students at West Ashley High seemed to take their cue from Brad and Philip. They had a strange hold over the other students, which made them natural leaders.

Students asked them for favors. But they feared them, too.

Later on, he heard a story about a new student who got into an altercation with Brad. The new student was about to strike him when he started to scream. He said he was burning up. Burning alive. Burning in hell. He ran, screaming from the schoolyard, and drowned himself in a pond to cool off. The authorities fished him out of the pond a few hours later.

So breaking into the troika was a ticket to wider acceptance. Instant acceptance. Dominic didn’t have to work his way up. He could start at the top. Or so he hoped.

But Brad and Philip formed a tight circle. A closed circle. They were outwardly sociable. They showed him around.

Yet they were holding something back. When they took him to lunch, or took him to the beach, the conversation seemed to move on more than one level. The words were like code words, which meant one thing to him, and another thing to them.

And they knew things about him before he spoke. Little things would slip out in the course of conversation. Things he never told anyone.

As he got to know them better, insofar as they let him get to know them, he began to pick up on other quirks. Brad was rather sickly. His illnesses were unpredictable, and evaded diagnosis. Were they psychosomatic? Hard to tell.

During one of his frequent illness, Dominic paid him a visit at Middleton, where he lived with his parents. Middleton was one of the grand old plantations along the Ashley river—back when Indigo was a cash crop.

Dominic noticed an odd, upside down statue in Brad’s bedroom. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Just an old statue of St. ExpĂ©dit,” Brad answered. “It’s an heirloom from the West Indies. Been in the family for generations now.”

For his part, Philip was accident-prone. Indeed, it was a tad hazardous to be around Philip since you might end up as collateral damage from one of his many mishaps.

He had a fetish dangling from his review mirror. Said it was there to ward off evil spirits. But it seemed to be more of a magnet than a repellent.

As for Dustin, even in hot, humid weather, he almost always wore long-sleeve shirts. The only exception was when he was at the beach, or alone with Brad and Philip.

Dustin had a cabin on Folly Beach. One time, when they all went surfing, Dominic noticed some scars on Dustin’s wrists.

-iii-

“I’m going to invite Dominic to the ring shout,” Brad said.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Philip said. “Is it safe to lay our cards on the table?”

“It’s worth the risk,” Brad said. “This is a chance to turn him. Once he’s on our side, we can use him against his dad.”

“But what if we can’t turn him? What if he exposes us?” Philip said.

“We have other ways of dealing with him,” Brad said.

-iv-

In few days later, near about midnight, Brad rapped on Dominic’s bedroom window and said he was planning to take Dominic somewhere. He didn’t say where. It would be a surprise.

It turned out to be Magnolia cemetery. There was a flickering light as they approached.

There were some other kids gathered there, from the church or the high school. They were speaking to each other in some sort of patois that Dominic could only partly make out, with his smattering of schoolboy French. They were mulling around a circle with a cross inside.

“Want to join us?” Brad asked.

“No thanks, I’ll just stand here and watch,” Dominic said, warily.

Some of the kids began clapping, chanting, or drumming while the group moved in a counterclockwise motion. Their fluid figures, backlit by the campfire, cast ominous shadows.

Suddenly, one of the dancers began to twitch, tremble, and convulse. Then he stiffened. Then he began to speak in a low, raspy voice. The speaker identified himself as Baron-Samedi. He proceeding to utter a number of dire-sounding oracles.

Dominic found the spectacle both unnerving and revolting. He went back to the car and waited for Brad to return. In the distance he could hear the noise die down and the see the light extinguished.

Brad came back, visibly irritated, but biting his tongue. They drove back in dead silence until Brad spoke up. “I take it that you didn’t enjoy the ring shout,” Brad said.

“I’m a Christian,” Dominic said. “And not just because my Dad’s a pastor. It’s real to me. What I saw back there was a throwback to something diabolical.”

Brad grimaced, but held is peace.

-v-

After Brad dropped Dominic off at his house, he drove over to Drayton Hall, where Philip lived. It was a Colonial mansion, downriver from Middleton.

“Think Dominic will tell his dad what he saw tonight?” Philip asked.

“I doubt it,” Brad answered. “His dad wouldn’t approve of his being out at this hour. And he would be sneaking around if he was trying to please the old man.”

“You mean we can still turn him?” Philip asked.

“After tonight I don’t think that’s in the cards,” Brad answered.

-vi-

After his father was literally dumbstruck, Dominic thought back on the ring shout and all the other uncanny things he’d seen and heard. But what could he do?

Dustin was the weak link in the chain. Indeed, he was the opposite of Brad and Philip. They were outwardly approachable, but inwardly unapproachable. Their friendliness was a pose. They kept you close to keep you at bay.

They manipulated people. Used friendship to monitor and control others. Ironically, they got close to you to shield themselves from intrusive contact regulating the level of contact. They befriended you on their terms. They defined the boundaries.

Dustin, by contrast, was outwardly unapproachable, but inwardly approachable. He wanted friends and needed friends. He could be a genuine friend in return. His concern for others was real rather than feigned.

Yet he was guarded. Distant. Was he hiding something? Was he afraid of Philip and Brad?

If he could get some time alone with Dustin, he might be able to milk him for information. Yet it was hard to catch him alone. It’s as if Brad and Philip were also worried about Dustin, and kept him under surveillance.

Dominic staked out the beach cabin from a concealed location, and waited for the other two to leave. Dominic knocked on the door. Dustin seemed surprised and a bit apprehensive. He looked around to see if Brad and Philip were anywhere in sight before he let him in.

Dominic talked about his Dad’s situation. Dustin was sympathetic. He wanted to help, but something was restraining him.

“What are you afraid of?” Dominic asked. “Is it Brad and Philip”?

Dustin nodded.

Reaching for an explanation, Dominic asked, “Are you afraid they’ll put a hex on you, like they did with my Dad?”

It was a shot in the dark. Dominic didn’t know if that was the answer. But it’s something he’d been mulling over.

Dustin nodded.

“I don’t know what you have to lose,” Dominic said. “No offense, but you’re pretty miserable. If you’re this unhappy with the way things are, then you might as well try to change the situation. Anything would be an improvement.”

“No,” said Dustin. “Things could be even worse.”

“You’ve already said enough that you might as well tell me the whole story,” Dominic said. “You can trust me.”

And it’s true that Dustin trusted Dominic. They trusted each other. Dustin was a trapped animal, waiting for someone to spring the cage.

“It’s witchcraft,” Dustin said.

“What do you mean?” Dominic asked.

“All three of us come from founding families,” Dustin answered. “We’re Barbadians. Our English ancestors colonized Barbados before they settled in Charleston.”

“What about it,” Dominic asked.

“Some of our forefathers rediscovered the Old Religion when they were living in the West Indies. They picked up witchcraft from the slaves,” Dustin said.

“You mean you dabble in the occult?” Dominic asked?

“Brad and Philip are into that sort of thing, but I try to avoid it. Still, it’s like a family curse. You don’t ask for it. It’s willed on you by birth,” Dustin answered.

“But Brad and Philip seem to enjoy it,” Dominic said.

“Because it empowers them. But there’s a tradeoff. You pay for it in other ways,” Dustin said.

“Would you rather be normal?” Dominic asked.

“I wish to God I were!” Dustin exclaimed.

“Well, if it’s witchcraft, then God can deliver you,” Dominic said.

“God hates me! I’m like the devil’s spawn,” Dustin replied. “My ancestors made this bloody pact with the dark side.”

“But you believe the Bible, don’t you?” Dominic asked.

“Naturally! I’m not some clueless liberal,” Dustin answered. “How could I believe in the devil, and not believe in God? I know from experience who’s who and what’s what. But I’m on the wrong side of that battle.”

“But you don’t need to be,” Dominic said. “You and I can pray right now for your deliverance.”

“Is that all?” Dustin asked.

“You’ve also got to break your ties with Brad and Philip. And destroy any charms, idols, amulets, or talismans,” Dominic answered.

“I don’t keep that sort of thing around the house. Brad and Philip are into that sort of thing, not me,” Dustin said.

“So what have you go to lose?” Dominic asked.

“They will retaliate,” Dustin answered.

“What can they do? Stick pins in voodoo dolls?” Dominic asked.

“That only happens in the movies. But you’ve seen and heard what they can do,” Dustin answered.

“But if you renounce the devil and turn to Christ, that will break the circle and break the spell.” Dominic said. “They depend on you—like an electrical current. Cut the circuit, and the current dies.”

“I never thought of that,” Dustin said.

So Dominic prayed with him and for him. Dustin felt as though a shadow had dissipated. A storm cloud that shadowed him all his life. And now, for the first time in his life, he felt as if he was stepping out into the sunshine.

-vii-

When Dominic returned home, he overheard his Dad talking to his Mom. Much to the consternation of the old-time parishioners, Pastor Davenport returned to the pulpit that Sunday.

A week later, Brad and Philip died in a freak accident. Philip was driving Brad to Folly Beach when lightening struck an oak tree, which split in half and came crashing down on their car—killing them instantly.