Can Such Things Be?

by John J. Miller on May 29, 2010

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

The First Assassin is a historical thriller. There’s nothing supernatural about it. But my fondness for weird fiction did inspire one short passage. The recent discussion on this site about ghost stories reminded me of it. Below is an excerpt from roughly the middle of The First Assassin. Portia and Joe are runaway slaves. Jeremiah is a young slave, not a runaway, whom they’ve just met. They have debated whether Jeremiah intends to help them or whether he’s a snitch.

It was late afternoon when the sound of Jeremiah wading through the stream woke them. He arrived with a pot of stew in a satchel. He sat as they ate and then cleaned the pot in the stream.

“I’ve got one more thing for you,” he said. “Grave dust.”

Portia and Joe knew immediately what he was talking about. Some slaves believed that wiping feet with cemetery soil–grave dust–removed all traces of scent and made it impossible for dogs or trackers to continue a search. The runaways watched Jeremiah pull a bag from the satchel. It was full of dry, gray dirt.

Joe looked at Portia. “Do you believe in this?”

“One time I asked my grandfather if ghosts were real.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Don’t pretend that such things can’t be.’”

That last line–“don’t pretend that such things can’t be”–is a play on the title of a short-story collection by Ambrose Bierce, Can Such Things Be?

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