It got to the point where the town decided they’d just have to burn it down. There didn’t seem to be any other way to it, though this realization came after many hours of discussion and sometimes heated argument. The church-elder meeting that Wednesday evening ended with the menfolk agreeing with the Methodist preacher at last; the Baptist church down by the eastern outskirts (which had up until recently been a gathering place for sings and barbecues and kickball games) had become tainted with the Wormwood, and no amount of prayer or inaction would cleanse it. To the Methodists this was no great loss; they bore no ill will towards the Baptists, naturally, but by this sign it became clear to all concerned which establishment was blessed by God, and which was not. The Baptists refuted this, and their pastor had indeed given a powerful sermon on how the Wormwood was a test, not a punishment, but the Methodists and their fair-weather allies the Pentecostals were rightly afraid, and whatever the cause or reason for the tainting, all agreed that something must be done lest it spread and perhaps breed more hideous things to crawl under and about other houses and barns. The Baptists had argued for clemency, continued prayers and blessings, and there were whispers in the back of the room about sending for an Exterminator, but this was struck down as soon as it was offered. The people of Malone were proud if they were anything, and even the Baptists agreed that this was an internal affair, and of no concern to Dothan city-folk or any of their ilk. With options failing superstition and rumor ruled the meeting, for there were only two certainties: one, the Baptist church had Wormwood growing, and two, the taint came from the east, from whence all unnatural things come. By raised hands and solemn nods even the Baptists agreed, some with tears streaming down their faces, to gather together and burn their former house of worship to the ground.
Counting only willing and able-bodied men, the town of Malone contained fifty-eight firebugs that evening. With the rest stowed safely away in the sanctum sanctorum of the Methodist Church, the Methodist men as well as the Baptists and the Pentecostals joined together at the Volunteer Fire Department to plan the method of attack. They ranged in age from sixteen to seventy-one. A precious few had shotguns or pistols, the rest were armed with farming implements such as pitchforks and machetes. Some had torches made of “fat-lightern,” but these remained unlit, and appeared as huge, knotted clubs in the dark. One boy had a slingshot which he fingered nervously, sliding a stone into its leather cradle, taking aim, and then bringing it down again only to repeat the process. There were dogs too, mutts mostly, and there were some that could be recognized by a nearsighted judge as some large working breed or other. The clamor of dogs and men would have been deafening had the occasion been to fire steaks and shuck oysters, and there would have been wives and babies crawling all over, playing games and laughing and such, but the womenfolk were crowded in Methodist pews, clutching their babies and praying hard. Even the dogs seemed to know the severity of the situation, so they laid their ears back and were silent. Just as their masters were silent.
The preachers talked together briefly, in whispers, and it was decided that they would wait for dawn to start the burning. Rumor told that only a fool would hunt the creatures of the Wormwood at night, and for once the messenger had spoken true. The men huddled together and didn’t sleep, nor did they talk to each other; instead spending the five hours between midnight and dawn in prayer, clutching to the iron of their guns, and moving their lips to the Apostle’s Creed or to the Lord’s Prayer, those staples of poor and frightened men called upon to do bloody but necessary work. The dogs were turned out of doors to range as they would. Dogs could be counted on to smell evil and report it. And the men were confident enough in their dogs to know that each of them would die before allowing the Wormwood into the town proper, and none would be quiet about it. Thus Malone kept watch, waiting and listening, and only the smallest of the children slept at all.
Dawn broke with pink and orange and no sign of Jesus, just as it had for countless days before. Gabriel had held off blowing his trumpet for another day, and so the men rose of one accord and prepared themselves. The firehouse, situated in the center of town between the general store and the Pentecostal church, was a good quarter of a mile away from the Baptist Church, and was the last building passed if a traveler was moving east towards Mount Olive, but the first encountered if coming from the other way out of the Wormwood. Mount Olive, as far as any of them knew, was still a grouping of a dozen or so houses and farms exclusively for colored and Freewill Baptist, whom had lived in quiet harmony with the people of Malone for time immemorial. However, that information was almost two weeks old, having been conveyed by a peddler of some repute for whom Mount Olive was the last stop on a route that extended back far to the west. He had come through town speaking only of having done decent business with the coloreds and told no other news. It was thought that with the way things had progressed the peddler would be turning around in Malone the next time, for no wagons had come from Mount Olive since, and it was on the following Sabbath that the taint was discovered at the Baptist Church. The fate of Mount Olive was clucked about, but only briefly, for the taint was a more pressing concern now that it had spread even into Malone itself.
The preachers led the way each with an open Bible in one hand held out in front, like a salute or a warding, and a jug of precious kerosene in the other. The Methodist minister began quoting the Twenty-Third Psalm and his two companions picked up the cadence, each in the powerful, sonorous voices that had made them so impressive in the pulpit. The men clustered behind them not in military formation, but in a sort of ordered disarray. They walked in scattered groups of two or three, fathers with sons, neighbors with neighbors, and yet all remained in step, either consciously or unconsciously, mimicking exactly the determined strides of their leaders. The dogs formed a sort of half-circle around the men and faced straight ahead forsaking the horseplay and barking of any other less important day. When the Psalm ended it started again among the preachers, and then someone in the back started singing an old hymn with a strange-sounding but appropriate name. The Psalm mingled with the strains of “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” and those men who had torches lit them.
The main street of Malone was dirt mostly, though it had been paved at one time in its history, and time had reduced the asphalt to large rocky patches irregularly spaced and forever pushed together by grass and clay. West of Malone the road still carried some of the dignity of its former life. It was still called Highway 2, an ancient name less important-sounding than perhaps it should have been. But Malone was almost as far east as anyone dared to go and Dothan felt further upkeep to be wasteful of precious funds so the Malonians had made do with what they had and spread clay everywhere to even things out. On this day, however, even the road itself had a sort of prideful bearing because an army was marching down it. With red dust swirling in their wake and hymn and Psalm projecting in front the villagers did seem more like an avenging army than a mob. They had a purpose, a cause, and their cause was righteous. They could see the First Baptist Church of Malone not long after they began, a yellow-brick, squat building with a wooden roof and a decently tall steeple, white, topped by a cross. There used to be two pecan trees between the army and its destination–tall ancient trees that had once spread out over the roof of the church and, when green, almost completely obscured it from view. They were gone, or at least transformed, for one had lost all its leaves and was black and oozing from the highest branch to the lowest root. The other was much worse for the wear. Somehow it had been sheared off at a point about as high as a man and its great forty-foot bulk had crashed into the road, leafless and ashen. The men said nothing about these portents. They did not whisper about what could have killed two huge trees, broken off one, and blighted the grass in a great circle with the church at its center. They all knew what had done it, and it wasn’t anything natural or cleansing like fire. It was the taint of Wormwood which no green thing could survive for long.
The men did not break stride, did not falter, until the preachers themselves stopped at the edge of the blighted grass. Psalm and hymn ceased. The Methodist preacher, as the leader, turned his back to the church and faced his men. The other two preachers kept their eyes and Bibles focused on the church from which a phosphorescent glow emanated and a sound like a hundred rattlesnakes struck up.
“Let us pray,” intoned the Methodist preacher, his voice carrying over the rattlesnake-sound. For the first time ever, no one bowed their heads or closed their eyes, instead staring straight ahead at the church, casting their prayers against it.
“Lord God in heaven, we are gathered here in Your name, to raise our hands–”
One of the blue stained-glass windows blew out with a crash, the rattling increased, and something that looked a lot like a gigantic octopus tentacle shot out and wrapped itself around the trunk of the still-upright pecan tree. The Methodist men and Baptists prayed silently, eyes open, while the Pentecostals prayed aloud, joining their voices with that of the preacher, as is their custom.
“–against Satan and his evil seed, the Wormwood. Dear Lord, we ask for Your protection, and if it be Your will for us to prevail today, we ask for Your strength, in this our hour of need–”
The main church doors were facing the street, and they exploded outward, clattering across the road. Another huge tentacle, mottled gray with suction cups spaced irregularly around it, followed one of the doors and picked it up. It then reared high in the air like the neck of a dinosaur and flung the door towards the preachers. No one so much as flinched as it fell harmlessly short, the prayers continued even over the rattling.
“For it is written that You will never leave us, or forsake us. Lord Jesus, march before us today, give us Your holy blessing, so that we might be victorious! In Jesus’ holy name we pray–”
“Amen!” yelled the throng together, so that it sounded more like a battle cry than the ending of a prayer. Then, with undaunted purpose, the preachers stepped into the blighted grass-circle, and the men spread out around it. Those with shotguns and rifles took aim and at a shouted command shot at the tentacle of their choice. The standing tree collapsed as the tentacle retreated while the rattling intensified until it was a hissing whine.
“Prepare, foul demons, for the wrath of God!” shouted the Pentecostal minister, striding towards the church, lighting the rag stuffed in the mouth of his jug. A third tentacle shot out through the shingles, and then a fourth, but the Pentecostal’s aim was true, his jug shattered on the roof. As the kerosene blazed up the middle window collapsed in on itself and a flood of jet-black things scurried out. Whether they were mostly beetle, spider, or hyena is up to dispute. They were huge, awful conglomerations of legs and teeth and hair, the size of dogs with hard carapaces and clicking, slathering mouthparts. They moved like cockroaches, streaming away from the fire and towards the circle of men.
The dogs intercepted as best they could spurred on by that fierce loyalty to master and home that only dogs know, but the resulting battle was like a naked man fighting a lawnmower. Half of a large brown retriever-mix hit the Baptist minister in the knee as he was in the process of lighting his kerosene. He fell sprawling and in a trice the beetle-things were on him, half a dozen of them clicking and slashing. The feast would have lasted longer, but the jug of kerosene ignited and flamed the lot. The beetle-things did not burn like normal creatures; something in their foul nature caused them to be more flammable then perhaps the kerosene itself. As the men with torches charged in the remains of the Baptist minister burned brightly with six or seven hollowed out and crispy exoskeletons burning with him.
This event proved, in less than a second, yet another storybook rumor about the vile things of Wormwood–that fire is the cleanser of God among them. The torches were as useful as the shotguns against the beetle-things, merely a touch and a dodge was enough to dispatch them. Some of the men were too slow to dodge and they paid dearly for it. For the rest it was a turkey-shoot since a sharp-eyed farmer with buckshot is more than a match for anything under the sun. Some of the things were blown into unrecognizable bits of shell and ichor, others burned as quickly as a gasoline-soaked cotton ball. Soon the dogs and men presided over a burning field of thing-corpses, and, though the men and dogs who lost their lives lost them in gruesome ways, thankfully there were not many dead. The men advanced on the church with renewed vigor like soldiers who had breached a barricade. The Methodist preacher lit his jug and threw it, with the blessing of God it seemed, for the jug disappeared into the window from whence came the black things. It exploded soon after, shaking the foundations. The rattling became a squeal, and the tentacles spasmed briefly and stopped.
The men with axes and shovels attacked the dying tentacles, chopping and hacking; it wasn’t long before the tentacles caught fire as well and were consumed. Then there was nothing left to do but watch the church burn.