It was first published in WHEN THE BLACK LOTUS BLOOMS, a hardback anthology from way back in the 1980s. I still like this story. It's pretty good. Like all good stories, it's not just about the obvious. It's also about something beneath the surface. All decent fiction has at least a little bit of the subversive about it. This tale made a few honorable mention lists in those days and I got some nice comments from some editors who read it.
When I started assembling my previously published stories for A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS, I was actually surprised to notice that so many of my yarns were about ghosts. Especially surprising considering that I don't believe in ghosts (or anything supernatural) at all. But I sure do like writing stories about them.
By James Robert Smith
Gordon Hughes wasn’t an evil man. But he was very rich, and influential, and he did not like to be stopped. In fact, he never had been stopped in any endeavor since he’d lost a fistfight as a boy. No, it wasn’t that Gordon Hughes ever went about his business with the idea that harming another or causing them pain was the main thrust of his activities. He was, though, a covetous man.
He was likely the most powerful person in all of Woodvine, Georgia. When Senator Tallmadge himself had come stumping through the county, the Hughes home was the one place he stopped to make his pitch. It was a hell of a sight, red galluses everywhere. Almost everyone thanked God that Gordon Hughes was a citizen of Woodvine, and all walked about with their chests puffed out for weeks afterward. Neither was Gordon Hughes a hated man.
But greed was part and parcel of what Mr. Hughes was. If he saw what he wanted, he bought it, as cheaply as he could. If he could not buy, then he took it, by hook or by crook. Nobody stood in his path for long.
Across the way from Hughes’ fine house was Mount Zion Church. The grounds of that church were a pretty thing. The oaks there were greater than any others in the town, all adrape with Spanish moss that hung to the earth in heavy tendrils. All about the place, and among the cemetery with its headstones, the wild azalea grew fat and full, their blossoms ripening huge, pink and white, in the spring air. Easily, it was the finest spot in the whole county.
After Senator Tallmadge’s visit, Mr. Hughes complained to his wife, Lydia that it was a damned shame that they didn’t have a better home to have showcased for Georgia’s most powerful man. Yes, Mrs. Hughes had replied, that was just too bad. But, she had added, their home was the finest in town.
And all the while she talked, Gordon Hughes stood at his big picture window and gazed across at the church and the property about it. He could see a new structure standing over there in place of the old, graying church. A new house. His hose.
That church across the way was a Baptist church. (Was there any other kind in the county?” Its members were old folk who attended services every Sunday and every Wednesday and whenever the minister said “Be here!” They were good, industrious folk. And they were black.
Again, Hughes was not truly evil. He din not hate the people whose church stood across the road from his fine home. Their minister, Reverend Coggin, was many times a guest in the Hughes home; although he entered and exited through the kitchen door, as was deemed proper in those days. And Gordon Hughes enjoyed those times when he sat by an opened window, listening to the music passing from that church to his ears. Still, the idea that he wanted the property upon which the church stood grew in his mind. He would have it.
So, he sent word to Reverend Coggin that he wanted to speak with him. Shirley Bassey, who cooked for Mr. And Mrs. Hughes, took the letter to her minister when Sunday came. He accepted the invitation, of course, and made the journey to see the county’s most important citizen on a bright winter’s morning when the air was but cool and the sun sparkled. He went into the Hughes home.
Mr. Hughes invited Reverend Coggin into his parlor. And there they sat to pass the time for a bit, while the wealthy man built up to the subject at his heart. For his part, Reverend Coggin waited, listened, made his small talk and wondered what was about. He was calm, but he was more than a little anxious, for he could think of no reason why he should be so summoned. The Klan was quite (and to his credit, Mr. Hughes had done much to shut those boys up and keep them in line), and it was not yet time for church homecoming when white folk came to visit. But he waited patiently. He was old, and experienced in dealing with Gordon Hughes, and had even known Mr. Hughes’ father.
Round and about went the conversation until, finally, Hughes made his pitch. The Reverend listened, did not become upset.
“Besides the money I will pay for the land, I will also pay, in full, the cost of moving the church. I own a large lot at the intersection of Lee and Bull. I give it to the congregation title-free. It’s but a mile down the way.” His eyes sparkled in the sunlight that gleamed through curtains and lace.
“We’re an old church,” Reverend Coggin said after waiting in thoughtful silence for a moment. “We have a lot of history attached to that place. We, as a church, have put down roots there. Our families are buried there.” He said nothing more, having completed his oblique refusal.
“I understand,” Hughes told him. “I do. That is why I’m more than happy to give the church more land than they would be giv9ng up. That is why I will be happy to pay for everything to relocate your church.” He smiled. “You will put it to the congregation?”
“Of course, Mr. Hughes.” A shake of hands, a slap on the back, and Reverend Coggin was gone from the house of Gordon Hughes, a good deal sadder and a little more afraid than he had been before he’d gone in. He knew what the congregation would say. He knew what they would say to Mr. Gordon Hughes, owner of almost everything in the county. The answer would be “no” and Mr. Hughes would become angry. Coggin hunched his old shoulders as a shiver snaked its way up his spine.
The congregation heard what the reverend had to say. They sat in the pews on a mild winter’s evening, their black faces turned up to see their preacher, to hear what he was telling them. They fell uncharacteristically silent for such a Sunday meeting, the realization sinking in. It would be futile tie refuse the white man what he wanted. It would do no good to say no to his request. But they said it anyway, and the reverend felt both proud and sad at the same time.
The wealthy man was not pleased the Coggin’
S flock did not see things his way. He could not understand how they could so easily turned down his most generous offer. But he did not worry overlong about the situation, for Woodvine was his town. The people who had said no to him worked in his sawmills, his warehouses, his stores. Everyone answered to him. Everyone. He owned Woodvine. Even its sprit. It was the easiest thing in the world for him to have the church building condemned, the land it had stood upon for so long forcibly sold. He did it and he bought it all.
Although it hurt them, the people of the church bowed before the law that wielded against them. No one did anything foolish. No one tried to stand up to the city father any more than they already had. None of them did anything, and no white folk stepped forward to take their part.
Once more, Gordon Hughes had what he wanted. He was generous in his victory, and still adhered to what he had originally offered to the good people of Mount Zion Church. A mile down Bull, where it crossed Lee, Hughes signed over a parcel of land to the soon-to-be-moved church. He hired a builder from Waycross who came up, put the old building on blocks and wagons, and had tit moved carefully down to the new site. He paid for it all, and improvements. To salve his conscience.
Too, as he had promised, and as Reverend Coggin had feared, the cemetery was moved, remains and all. The church was completely uprooted. Erection of the new Hughes home began at once.
For his part, Reverend Coggin made the most of he situation. He kept quietly, even among his family, of the dealings with Mr. Hughes. He even invited the generous Gordon Hughes to the dedication of the new church, which the latter attended with smiles and good humor.
Soon after, before the completion of Gordon Hughes’ fine, new home, the old Minster passed away, and was the fist new tenant in the new cemetery. The house went up.
Almost a year after the construction began, Mr. and Mrs. Hughes were able to move into their bi house. It was much finer than their old one; they now had a ballroom (the only one within four counties!) and more space than they knew what to do with. They held a massive celebration to honor the completion of the great house. They mayors from half a dozen towns were there, and tow congressmen attended. The place was full of light, and life, and cheer. Hughes was pleased.
Winter had come ‘round again, merely chilly, as it does in the southern part of Georgia. Gordon Hughes awoke one fine, sun-filled morning, stepped out upon the wide porch that girdled his house. He strode out, onto the heart-of-pine planking, smelling the good air, watching the fog slowly lift as the sun burned it off. He looked down the way, where Bill Street veered to the west, and decided that it was good day for a stroll. In fact, he could walk down to where he had a stand of slash pines, to check the harvest. A brisk walk. It would be good.
He started off, his hard soles clacking upon the paving stones bought and sold to the town by one of his companies. The road, all dark and sandy, was empty of traffic, and the dew clung to it, holding down the dust that would later rise beneath passing wheels. Moving quickly, Gordon Hughes made good time, coming to the place where Bull Street bent like a crimped pipe. There were not many houses this far out, an d the paving stones faded to rough grasses that bled into the stands of pine that stood on every side. He went further toward Lee.
And, looking that way, he topped short.
He could have sworn. He could have bet his life that the Mount Zion Church had been moved the southwest corner of Lee and Bull. But it wasn’t there. It stood, amidst the pine and mist, on the northwest corner of the intersection. Gordon Hughes blinked. He stared. He took a a deep breath, turned about to make certain he had not somehow got headed the wrong way, and looked again. Northwest it was. In some confusion, he moved toward the church, slowly, at first.
One big front door, a year-old coat of white paint just beginning to fade, opened wide as he neared it. Gasping, he half expected to see the old figure or Reverend Coggin coming down the steps. But it was only Parley East, he new minister; he spotted Hughes, greeting him.
“Hello, Mr. Hughes! What brings you here at such an early hour?” H moved down a step.
Still, puzzled, the white man took a moment to reply. “A walk. I was just out for a walk, Reverend.”
“Well! A good day to you, then.” The black man went toward the cemetery, taking long steps to match hi long legs.
The other turned back. “Yes?”
“Have we…moved your church lately?” He gazed across the opposite corner where twenty-year-old pines lifted up their green, green branches. He could smell pinesap draining into pans.
“Moved, sir?” He tried not to seem disrespectful to Woodvine’s first citizen, especially considering how good the man had been to the church.
“Yes.” Hughes was confused, gawking. “Moved.”
“Not in a year, sir. Not since before I came here.” He smiled, not knowing exactly why. “Anything else I can do?
”A year ago. Of course.” He faced back toward Woodvine. “Nothing else, Reverend. Nothing else.” With an absent wave, he headed back. He had to go to his office uptown, and look at the records there. The deed, the deed.
Sawyer Long knew just where to look to find every deed of any piece of property his employer had ever owned. He had worked for the Hughes family for almost fifty years, and his memory served him well. “Yes sir, Mr. Hughes! I can look that up for in an instant.” He went o a long row of filing cabinets, all brown and woody there in the musty room smelling of pulp. True to his promise, he plucked it free of the drawer in which it had rested for over a year. With a flourish of dust, he handed it over.
Gordon Hughes pulled the document out of its envelope and eyed it. Carefully. Yes. Yes. He had been mistaken. The lot he had given over toe Mount Zion was precisely where the church now stood.
“Anything wrong?” Gray eyebrows perked below a balding pate.
“No. Nothing wrong, really. I just seem to be losing my memory a little younger than Father did,” he admitted.
With shaking hand, he gave the deed copy back to the employee. Later, out on the street with the sun shining brightly, the avenue full of traffic, he felt better. H went home, and did not think about Mount Zion Church, or tried not to. Although he stayed away from that part o Bull Street, his dreams were sometimes filled with images of the plain, frame building. Reverend Cogging would out, smile and nod at him.
Weeks passed; no one noticed how Gordon Hughes went out o of his way to make wide detours around the spot where Lee crossed Bull. One day, though, he had no chose but to drive his new auto down South Street one block from where Zion Church stood. Nervously, as he approached Bull heading down South, he craned his neck to see past the houses that lay between the intersection and the church. Almost, he did not notice the church at his right, on the northwest corner of South and Bill.
The rich man’s heat thudded; he felt it pounding away at his ribs, trying to get out. He gripped the steering wheel in clenched fists. His face went pale. He sated, eyes bulging. It couldn't be. No!
“A quarter of a mile,” he breathed. The church had moved a quarter of a mile from where it had been. Hughes sighed, forgot about his errand, and sped away from the church, toward down, toward his office and deeds and faithful Sawyer Long.
Gordon Hughes blustered into the filing cabinet-lined office where the smell of paper dominated. His color had returned and his face was flushed a ruddy hue.
“Mr. Hughes!” Sawyer Long, looking every day of his sixty-eight years, could see how upset his employer was. He stood to meet him.
“Sawyer!” He grasped the old man’s hands, causing him t drop the pen he was holding.
“Yes sir! What’s wrong?” His own heart fluttered.
“You remember the parcel that I gave to Reverend Coggin’s congregation. Mount Zion. You remember, don’t you?”
“Yes sir, I remember.” He considered. “Is it on fire? Is it burning?” Long took a step toward the door, ready to sound the alarm.
“No! No! Nothing like that.”
The old man regained his composure, looked at Gordon Hughes. “What, then?”
“Do you recall weeks ago when I came in here to have a look at a copy of the deed?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Where was it located? The parcel, I mean.”
Sawyer Long was confused. “I don’t understand, sir.”
“Where was it? Where was Mount Zion Church?”
“I…I reckon it was right where it is now.” He paused, trying to understand. “On the northwest corner of South and Bull.”
Hughes stiffened at the words. In a moment, with Long standing by, waiting for the other to say something, Gordon Hughes stepped slowly out of the room, down the stairs, to the street. He went home. He stayed there for days, his wife thought that he was not feeling well, and he did not tell here what was disturbing him.
On a misty morning a week after last seeing the church, Gordon Hughes saw it again. He went out upon the wide front porch to gaze up the street and down, to assure himself that Woodbine was yet normal, and all his. First, he looked northward, to calm himself. Then he glanced to the south, to the bend in Bull Street.
And there, unmistakably, was Mount Zion Church. It stood there in the crook of the road, where old Widow Hilliard’s huge yard had been. There were less than a dozen houses standing between it and Mr. Hughes. For a long, long time he stared at it. He stared while the sun rose up over the pines, melting the clammy fog that hugged the ground. The mists were soon gone. The church was not. Gordon Hughes retreated into his fine, big home.
“Lydia! Lydia!” He shrieked his wife’s name until she came hurrying into the wide, polished foyer. In spite of what they knew they should do, Shirley, their cook, and Rae, their housekeeper, came hurrying in also. The three women stopped there, staring at Mr. Hughes, waiting for him to speak. His lips, paled to white on a whiter face, finally parted.
“What? What is it, Gordon?” Lydia moved toward him, so that she could hear his whispered words. She went close.
“The church,” he rasped. “It’s moving.”
And then he fainted.
Mrs. Hughes sent for Doctor Warner, who came as quickly as he was called. With help, Mr. Hughes had been taken to his bed, there to await his physician. Warner bent over him, poking, prodding, asking questions. He had his diagnosis.
“He needs rest, Lydia. I think that’s all that’s really wrong with him.” He whispered to her, out of earshot of Gordon and help.
“Tired? That’s all?”
“Well, maybe a bit of guilt.”
“Guilt? What do you mean?” He hands fluttered to her throat.
“Something about Mount Zion Church. Having it condemned so that he could buy up this property for the new house. You know,” he said.
“Well. You make sure that he gets plenty of rest and that he doesn’t overtax himself. Okay?”
“Yes. Yes, Doctor Warner. I’ll see to it.” For the remainder of the day, she watched over her husband, making certain that he had taken the medication the doctor had left. Mr. Hughes slept.
Something woke him up. His eyes snapped wide, and he was instantly alert, completely rested. It was night, dark but for the moon, and the house was quiet. In his bed, appropriately huge and soft, his wife slept soundly, the tones of her even breathing drifting through the room. Outside, he could hear strange noises; noises that made him afraid to go to the window to look out and see just what was causing them. He waited, gathering his courage. The noises came and went with the wind: footsteps in the sandy soil (many of them), wood grating against wood; toil in the cool, moonlit night.
Courage gathered, the master raised himself from his downy spot; his bare feet found his slippers at his bedside. Quickly, before his nerve could face, he shuffled to the window and flung the drapes wide.
He saw them. They came up out of the earth and out of the churchyard. From his yard, they sprang up from the grass, from between rows and rows of wild azalea. These were the ones the workers had missed. The ones with no gravestones. The ones who had been buried too deep. They joined their kin who had been, and still were, coming up from the displaced cemetery of Mount Zion Church. There was work to be done.
Annie West, dead these twenty years, tottered out of the good, black loam, and made her way from house to house. She had been nursemaid and midwife; her touch and her voice had been soothing things to salve pain and banish worry. From one ear to another, she went through the town, whispering. “Sleep,” she crooned. “Sleep. And remember that the Church of Mount Zion is where it has always been.”
Gordon Hughes heard her as she slithered up the stairs to his room. Tearing his eyes from the sight of the hundreds-strong army in the streets, he watched as the shade floated to his wife’s ear. He listened as Annie whispered her sweet words. Lydia Hughes smiled. Gordon moaned in fear. With a contemptuous glance for Mr. Hughes, Annie was gone, a vanished shadow. There were more ears to be whispered into.
From his post, Hughes could see the army as they toiled. There were a hundred dead faces he recognized. There were more than he did not. They went wherever they were needed.
A handful of black men who had worked in the offices of some Hughes enterprise or another went into rooms, into cabinets and drawers, and they fixed paper to read as it now must. With pens and with ink, they stroked and dabbed until everything was right. Then they went back to the street, back to the church, where the real work was going on.
A hundred backs braced. Two hundred legs strained. Arms uncounted pushed and pulled, directing the mass that was Mount Zion Church, the shell of wood that held the souls, the spirit and souls, of a proud, old community. They moved it. Again. While Woodvine slept. But for Gordon Hughes.
And when the church was half a block closer to its roots, the hundreds went and they dug and lifted and heaved until the cemetery was that much closer. Still, they were not done. They returned to the abandoned site, filling in, tamping down, replanting wherever a thing had been disturbed. Then they were done. Then they returned to their beds, for now.
In the morning, Mrs. Hughes awoke to a husband struck dumb. He answered no question. There were no replies for any request directed at him. He rose, ate the breakfast that was placed before him at the table, and he brooded. He retired to his library and he thought, long and hard. After a while, he came out. “We’re moving,” he told his wife.
“What?” She gave him a look that displayed her genuine confusion.
“We are moving,” he said. “Get William Bass and tell him that we’ll need as many strong arms as he can muster. We are moving our household.” He paused. “Oh. And you and Shirley need to pack your porcelain away. We wouldn’t want you to break any of it.”
In reply, Gordon Hughes pointed through the window before which they were standing. “The old place,” he said. “It’s still vacant. It was good enough then; it’s good enough now.”
Lydia pleaded with him. She begged. She tried to talk some sense into him. He would not listen. Soon, William Bass and his men were trundling the heavy pieces across the dusty road to the old house. He would not stop. She called Dr. Warner.
“Gordon,” Dr. Warner greeted him where he stood on the porch of his quickly emptying home. “Just what are you doing?”
“I think that’s pretty obvious.” Nothing more. Strong men wrestled with a heavy couch. Even in the cool air, there was the smell of sweat, of hard work.
“Well, then, why are you doing this?”
“The church.” He gestured toward it. “There are no more empty lots between it and my house. I reckon they’ll put it right here the next time they take a mind to move it.”
“Who will move it, Gordon?”
“The niggers, Dr. Warner. All those dead niggers.” With that, he strode from the porch, ready to order the placement of each piece of furniture being brought to the old place. For now, he was willing to retreat. At least he would deprive them of physically moving him out. He did not relish the thought of dead hands grasping at him, shoving him out, lifting him up while his wife and everyone else slept through it all. No. At least he would deprive them of that.
The doctor went to Mrs. Hughes. “I’m sorry, Lydia. But I think that we’ll just have to humor him for now. Just sit tight. Things will be all right.” She sighed with no choice but to believe him.
Gordon Hughes and his wife went back to their old house. They went back, and Gordon waited for what he knew must come. It did not happen for a week. But it did.
When it was over, Mount Zion Church was precisely back to where it had always been: across the road from the home of Gordon and Lydia Hughes. Its grounds were gorgeous; a prettier sight could not be had in the whole of the county. Tall oaks spread their gnarly limbs high and low. Thick moss hung from every limb, and flowers bloomed there in spring on healthy branches. In the heat of the day there was plenty of shade, and the sun dappled the ground wherever it could.
Of Gordon Hughes’ fine, new home, there was no trace. No one could remember it. No one could recall it. Save for Gordon, himself.
He did not like retreating. He did not like it. Oh, he had saved himself one small indignity, but it smacked too much of losing. Eventually, he knew, he would come up with something that would even things out; he would gather a bit of revenge for himself. For he still ruled Woodvine. That had not changed. For the time, he was content to wait, and plan.Almost a month passed before he woke one morning to discover that he had to look one block north to see Mount Zion Church. His house had been moved in the night, and, little by little, the Hughes home place was edged slowly out of town.