A Mystery of Delmarva, Part One

April 1, 2008, 11:30 am; posted by
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The Delmarva Peninsula is that little lump of land hanging off the south end of Jersey, or — if you like to avoid Jersey — the southeast end of Pennsylvania. It is thus named because of the three states that claim part of it: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. I have spent the last five days in the great state of Delaware and, as penance for writing so sporadically, I hope you will accept a bit of fiction.

This short story bears explanation, however. There is a man down the road from my dear friends who walks around his fields, praying over his sheep, at least once or twice every day, usually in the mid to late afternoon. I was out walking over spring break and was startled when I heard him, but then I had a few ideas…

It was bearing down on him like a thousand pounds of moist, salty sea air. He knew that he should kneel and let it in but he dared not; not in front of all these people. The respectable men of the town, even the mayor . . . none of them would understand what seemed to be happening in and around him.

A torrent of tempting emotions — a slightly melodramatic way to describe his situation, yes. But those were the words that popped into his writer\’s mind as he closed his eyes so tightly a purple mist of pain spread behind them. What was so tempting, besides the need to speak? To shout? To make his fear known?

His wife could see how he rocked as the leader\’s words made crescendos and diminuendos out of the names of the Lord that only he knew. Safety for all and deliverance from Satan, blessings and outpourings and confirmations of the Spirit . . . oh Father that we may glorify You please be with us in this moment . . . the words were less and less determinable as the prayer went on . . .

And that was the first time the cry burst out of the man\’s lips. It was inhuman; a howl: there was no other description. Five, six, seven, eight seconds, and silence.

The room was still. The instruments had broken off mid-measure — the musicians even were not quite used to this shrill an expression. A few beats and they began again awkwardly, the mood broken.

The man who had shouted — Jaffey was his name — slumped down in his pew, embarrassed beyond belief.

Jaffey had bought a herd of goats the week before…if two dozen goats were supposed to be called a herd anyway, the wife had remarked. He had been unable to explain the purchase when he came home, but they were well off and she had the children to worry about, and he the farm. So she raised her eyebrows, pointedly mentioned that he\’d have to build a bigger pen, and kept sewing.

It was later that day — the day he bought the goats — that Jaffey was hauling water and his world changed. He dropped the bigger bucket after an awkward placement of his foot on the wet rock and went, cursing, to retrieve it from the fast-moving river. He ran, limping, along the bank until he figured that he was far enough ahead of the bucket, then jumped into the icy water and waited for it to float downstream. He had just caught it in his hands when he noticed the grizzled old woman watching him from the bank.

“H– hello?” Jaffey stuttered, the water making it hard to stand.

“Don\’t let them out of your sight,” the stranger said.

“Let . . . who? What?” Jaffey remained as still as possible, thinking that he had misheard.

“He\’ll come to separate them out — the sheep and the goats. Don\’t let them out of your sight . . . he\’ll come to separate them.”

Thoroughly spooked, Jaffey walked towards the opposite bank. The woman repeated her lines without breaking her nervous, finger-twitching stare. As he climbed out of the river, her voice rose.

“The sheep and the goats. The sheep and the goats! He\’ll come to separate them; the sheep and the goats!” she spoke rhythmically.

“Ma\’am?” Jaffey asked uneasily, not sure what to do. “Are you . . . all right!”

She was frantically murmuring, though the occasional word broke out in a shout. “The SHEEP and the goats he\’ll COME to separate them don\’t let THEM OUT of your SIGHT the sheep and the GOATS the sheep and — LET ME GO!”

Jaffey had grasped her tightly by the shoulder to still her, but she turned on him like a cornered cat, and she indeed had feline intentions. By the time Jaffey lay on the ground, dazed and in pain, she had scratched nearly every square inch of his exposed skin. He could still hear her, though, as she retreated. She called back to him, spitefully.

“Don\’t let them OUT OF YOUR SIGHT!”


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