“The Devil and Andrew’s Sprong” by William R. Eakin
There is a pitchfork in the ground just as you take the turn on County Road 64 over by Uncle Joe’s Corner Liquor Store and Gas. It’s where William Andrew Walkman got out of that deal he made with the Devil for his soul. It’s three prongs up, used to be four, old dung fork, one broken off. If you touch it you see that it is now made of cold black iron and if you try to wiggle it, you know the handle runs straight down into the earth farther than men can dig—believe me, we tried, whole bunch of us—me and Uncle Joe and Harvey Cottrell and Kendall Hammons with all our shovels and with all our might, trying to see down into the truth of it for two days and six bottles of bourbon straight. The Devil got really angry about losing that deal.
William Andrew Walkman used to own that farm north of town on farm-to-market 49, chicken houses all caved in from sheer lack of attention long before his encounter with Mr. Diabolos, and the fields gone to seed, though he was still trying to work part of it; nowadays it’s just plain kudzu, lumps and bumps of what could be organic life but probably just dead trees and dead possum and dead clumps of dead everything underneath.
Andrew’s drink was rye, straight, cheap, warm from the bottle and he was in that with snorkels on when he met the man at the turn in the road, knowing full well it was Old Scratch.
“It’s you ain’t it?” And without any response he bubbled, “I want—they say you can give a man his heart’s desire and I want—.”
“What do you want, William Andrew Walkman?”
“To what?” It was something neither you nor the Angel of the Bottomless Pit hears many times in these parts. “What the hell for?”
And Andrew motioned back over his shoulder and said, “There, Uncle Joe’s Corner Liquor Store and Gas. I know what the sign says. But I wanna really know.”
“William Andrew Walkman, you ever read some of the crap that’s out there? Good God, you’ll lose your soul over it.”
“Or find it,” he said. And the Wicked One nodded at him, according to all accounts, and he agreed to come out to Andrew’s mobile home to sit and help him learn to read, if he could so learn. And Andrew knew full well what he was asking and what he would pay.
The Devil reached out an iron-cold hand and Andrew clasped it and shook.
After the first hour belaboring phonics, Abaddon the Accuser and Destroyer started to look with disbelief at Andrew—he had, I suppose, never seen such ignorance. After three hours his responses were far less of disbelief and more of astonishment. “William Andrew Walkman, I’m beginning to think that…” And he shook his head violently. After five hours he was shaking that way all over and the Anointed Cherub Who Walks Through Fire and Brimstone started accepting offers of rye from the bottle.
Six hours, then ten hours, then—
“Stop! Surely you’re tired, we can do this in the morning.” No, no. Not tired. Twelve hours, nonstop, of frustration and non-results and starting to tear up, virtually quaking, opening and closing his fists, and into the seventeenth hour, because Andrew seemed totally oblivious to the insanity and the frustration and they were into another bottle of rye, which the Devil had lost count the number of but had paid for, the Devil finally barked out, “Damn it, why the hell would you want this at all? Why not—a good looking woman-filled harem or a palace in Dubai or wealth beyond measure or—”
“I want this.” And he pointed to One Fish, Two Fish lying flat open.
“You can’t do it! We’ve tried. You are in-cape-able. I can’t just give it to you—you are In Cape Able!”
“Like hell. I’m not.” I’m not, he said, not double-negative incapable.
And what had been a man’s face, pretty nondescript but that mostly looked like Christopher Reeves, went really vibratory and roasting red; a little wisp of steam puffed out of flared nostrils. “You can’t do it, William Andrew Walkman. We could spend six hundred and sixty-six years and you couldn’t do it. You are a clod, a dolt, a miniscule mini-brain with bad neuronal wiring, a total farmer-Redneck-Redgunker who will never never never do it and you’re not worth the trouble!”
“I will do it, sir.” And he remembered something vague and far away, some whisper of his Daddy’s before his mom and dad went and got killed in that car wreck out at the interstate. “I will do it on my own. And if I do, you bastard, I win my soul back.”
“Take it back, you shit-head moron. If so.”
And William Andrew Walker looked down at the splayed pages of Dr. Seuss and read, really read: “One Fish. Two Fish.”
He did not read from memory—though his father had once read this to him, memories of things far off and vague. He had not memorized the text; he read it, each word, each sound. And he thereby won back his soul, cheated Death, got out of debt to the Devil.
“Fine, fine,” and the Great Deceiving Adversary sat down in an exhausted huff. But watching that ole boy read the Dr. Seuss, he suddenly felt nonplussed. What he said was a taunt: “You done won your soul back, fair and square. I might as well leave then. I’ll go.”
“Wait. Let me show you something.” And Andrew stood, escorted Old Gooseberry to the back bedroom of the mobile home, the one his father and mother had once inhabited. Andrew opened the door and motioned in: a room stacked and packed with dusty tomes. Countless of them. Lucifer looked with the brightness of his eyes—the room had been left just as they left it like a disheveled used bookstore in disrepair, in unorganized stacks and clutter, just as he had seen it when his two parents shared mind, dialogue, throbbed with it, read aloud, wrote poetry, drank cocktails in this place, where they escaped the chatter of the cities, before they let the mythologies of this place creep into their alcohol, before the Great Demon himself followed after them to the interstate.
Andrew bent down and picked up a first stack of children’s books, closest to the door. Intentionally left closest.
“I don’t know if your Mom and I will be around or ever make it back,” the old professor father who didn’t belong in Redgunk any more than she did, or anywhere, had whispered, an ache of despair, like a world of gray and white, and just a little color, one a fish of orange, one a fish of— “You see where it is right?” And a far-away thing: that mama and daddy must’ve been drinking and driving on big purpose. It was there on top of the first stack.
Toe-Rag peered past him as William Andrew Walkman took the first reader books from the room and saw: Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, beyond that stacks and stacks of pulps, weird stories, the kind to give thirteen-year-old boys little moral twists. And usually the Mischief-Maker would be quite pleased with that. Somehow this time, though, he wasn’t sure. Disorganized?
“You’ll probably need my help working through some of this. Your folks obviously read some heavy stuff.”
Andrew had a dictionary he’d already taken and set on the dining table. Now he was wading through children’s book after children’s book, inhumanly, really, and said, “You see I can do it myself.”
“Of course, so why should I—” But he did not bother to go. Those pulp stories kept him. And Andrew was wading toward them in just a few hours on his own steam, through ever heightening levels of vocabulary, incredibly, like maybe some neurons which should have fired a long time ago finally did, like maybe graphemes caught up with the phonemes and ideas that had awaited them.
Down in the depths of the earth, of course, this ole boy’s mama and daddy were simmering in underworld hot oil. Easy pick- up on the interstate for being too smart and snooty with their book-learning—verboten here in Redgunk.
“I want you to stay,” said Andrew. “I know I’m doing it. But I’ll need help. Past what a dictionary can do. Really.” And Andrew held out his hand. The Devil nodded and took it for a shake in his cold-iron fist.
Two days, no sleep, eyes like lightning, neurons sped up, at least, at the devil’s touch, Andrew went on. “So okay, Mr. Goodfellow, help me here, what’s this?” And he pointed at a single phrase in a book much larger than any he’d read to now: “Synthetic a priori judgments are possible.”
Satan moaned. “Kant.”
“You’re asking my help again?” And this time the Anti-Christ stretched out his hand and Andrew took it, and each looked into the other’s eyes, in real earnest. In real earnest, they both knew the deal: that in fact despite the earlier escape from such an agreement had led to a second such agreement, double-sealed. Andrew looked back past the Hardy Boys and the Ivanhoes to the stack of the philosophical, Hegel and Schopenhauer, in the original language.
More than a week in, several weeks in, dozing into pages and out of them, mostly drinking, hardly eating, barely noticing the supplies the Lord of the Flies brought in from Uncle Joe’s, often reading aloud and growing, busting with new knowledge, sometimes reading silently, busting inside, imploding with ecstasy, he found another book, rammed his intellect straight through it, then showed it to the Devil. Faust.
And Mephistopheles muttered: oh, crap.
“That One we skip.”
“It turned out badly for…”
Faustian hunger gnawed at the mind, kept the mind yearning forward for more knowledge, more power, more everything, for the one moment one could beg to be stopped, to stay, to say this is the most beautiful moment and makes all life worthwhile! And our friend the 666 knew exactly what it was like, and wanted to kill it in that brain fizzing and foaming at the table before him. Because at the end God saved Faust anyway. Bastard!
“Stop!” said Baphomet Beelzebub. “Stop.”
But William Andrew Walkman had read on, past Faust parts I and II, past Hegel, and had reached for Nietzsche.
“Okay, okay,” said Haborym. “That one’s okay. Thank God… I mean. God this is wearing me out. I mean, scratch that—thank God, God is dead.”
And the scholar looked up slyly from his book, in the original German, of course. “Ich fliege, I fly. I am light.”
And Old Nick suddenly grew genuinely bloodless. “What?”
“How many times did we shake on my soul after I won it back the first time?”
The Devil shrugged. There was something far away in the eyes of the Reader, but growing closer, more vibrant, more alive, as if not coming from the past but from the future. And William Andrew Walkman smiled something so mysterious into the room that even el Diablo himself could not recognize it. From far away, from right here, not at all vague. Because the Ghoul was suddenly bloodless and colorless and formless, too.
“If God is dead, so are you.”
At that insult, ole Belial reached around for the weapon, which was always and ever close at hand for claiming his prizes. It was just a pitchfork he grabbed, a manure pitchfork. Andrew did not set down his book.
The Devil reared back with that four-pronged sprong and thrust it into the sitting man.
And he tried his diabolical best, his increasingly awkward and frustrating and totally ineffective best to lift his prey into the air and hurl him through the floor and into the pit itself, like manure, like something utterly meaningless, catching that ole literate boy with one of the outside prongs. He could not budge the Reader one wit! And the Buddha-reading man sat solid, immoveable, heavier than anything any demon made up by any Cosmic Mind could ever lift. The prong just simply broke off.
Now our hero stood on his own. Just a man, all too human. But he took that pitchfork away from the Enemy, and he raised it up high. And at William Andrew Walkman’s touch, the thing turned to iron, solid iron, cold heart-of-earth iron. And William Andrew Walkman raised it higher, and they stood outside in the King Lear elements, in the woods, in the swamp, along every highway.
And with the great passive ferocity of thunder William Andrew Walkman bore the handle of that thing down into the heart, into the soul, into the mind of the earth, of the universe, of all. The anti-Christ was gone with the Christ of it, heaven with the hell of it. And William Andrew Walkman stood there powerful, more powerful than anything, a man. More powerful than anything with names or forms. And then he, too, was gone.
So I think that means that that ole boy cheated the Devil more times and in more ways than one. More times maybe than can be counted. Strange what a human being can do, as can the human books a man and a woman leave behind, the books that thereby can free even those passed-on readers, too, the reading of which, the thinking of which, can free just about—anybody.
William R. Eakin‘s short stories have appeared in most of the big genre magazines, including F&SF, ANALOG, AMAZING, etc., and have been reprinted in 4 book collections dedicated to them. Many have been recommended for the Nebula. A thirty-year compendium of his “Redgunk Tales” will be out in summer 2020. His more general literary work, too, has received numerous accolades (Andre Dubus III called a recent novella a “stunning masterpiece”).