Category Archives: Country Folk

Bred in the Bone

There were some folk that thought being the only source of law in a small town was light work.  But Prosper Vance knew better.  He’d been Sheriff in Holbert Valley for going on twenty years and deputy for fifteen before that.  If there was anything that confirmed your worst suspicions about human nature, Prosper reckoned, lawing was sure to do it.  Generally, it was the little pieces of meanness that stuck most with you.  Unchecked those petty hatreds and slights tended to grow like weeds and often ended up with someone’s body found in an unmarked grave. 

As Prosper stared down at Keefe McCalister’s body, he thought it a small miracle that ole Keefe hadn’t ended up in a hole sooner.  Keefe wasn’t, or more properly, hadn’t been a bad man, but he hadn’t been a good one either.  It was common knowledge that it was Keefe who had done for Roan Everett only a month before.  Keefe and Roan had a case of hate at first sight since grade school and had fought over whiskey, women, and cards since that time.  There was seldom a weekend since the two had hit puberty that one hadn’t ended up hauled down to the jail or given a good talking to.  Since Roan was shot, by accident it would seem – if drunkenness and Russian roulette could be considered accidents – the town had been a whole heap quieter.  And with Keefe lying six feet under it was likely to be quieter still.

It was, Prosper thought, a strange killing – though the victim was not unexpected.  Keefe’s face was unmarked, but his body was bashed and bludgeoned – caved in near flat in places as if someone had been at him with a sledge hammer.  Whoever had done for Keefe had a passionate hate going.  And yet, the body, when it was found hidden high in the hills was cared for as if by kin.  Wrapped in linen and laid reverently in the ground, there was even a rough cross on Keefe’s breast.  Almost as if two men and not one had a hand in it.  True, Prosper knew, some murderers took to remorse after a killing, but those were most likely to confess and often killed with a heated heart. 

Lovers done wrong often wept over their murders and begged forgiveness as they were hauled off to their fates.  But in his long career, Prosper had yet to see a murder of this violence paired with such a respectful burying.  It was perplexing and filled him with a strange dread.  Any man who could behave in such a way and then turn civilized over a burial was touched by some sort of devil.  There were, in this wide world, Prosper knew, such folk about – yet he had hoped never to encounter one in his jurisdiction.

It came to his mind, unbidden, that most folk would suspect Roan Everett’s father – seeing as Keefe had killed his only son a month earlier.  But Prosper had known Old Man Everett – as well as the man could be known – since he was himself a boy.  And though it could not be argued that the Old Man was uncanny, he was not the type to turn to vengeance.  Keefe had other enemies and friends that fought him of occasion who may’ve had cause to come at him with gun or knife.  But this work was more than a moment of recklessness. 

It was on these matters that Prosper was ruminating, sitting on his haunches and looking into the grave, when the County Examiner, Will Scott, pulled up in a battered ole Jeep that looked like an Army surplus repainted – which was what it was.  “Had a hell of a time getting up here, Prosper,” Will yelled up from the Jeep.

“Well, I don’t think our killer was thinking of your convenience,” Prosper said as he stood to full height.

Will walked over and peered down into the hole, “Son of a bitch!” he said, “What the hell did that?”

“Reckon that’s the County Examiner’s job to ascertain,” Prosper said.

“Well,” Will said, “I think my official first opinion will have to be ‘damned if I know.’ That’s a piece of work, that is.  Some sort of hammer or shovel, do you think?”

“Those strikes look bigger,” Prosper said, “And rounder and deeper than a man could make with a hammer or spade.”

Will began to open his bag and called back to his assistant still waiting by the Jeep.  “He’s a little jumpy,” he said to Prosper, gesturing to the boy walking up the path, “Straight out of school and a murder his first week.”

“Run of bad luck,” Prosper said.

Will looked back down at the body, “For everyone concerned,” he agreed.

Two days later, a second body turned up.  This one laying at the edge of town crushed near flat.  It took dental records and a good deal of cussing by Will Scott to identify the man as John Willum – a lay-about that came into town for a weekly game of dice.  The killer took no pain to hide this kill or the next two that showed up.  One a known moonshiner, named Michaels, who folk generally liked and the other a girl named Ann that lived down by the river with her grandmother.  The dead had nothing in common but their fate and Prosper was hard pressed to think of a reason – other than pure malice – that anyone would’ve had to harm these particular three souls.  Any man who knew Willum wasn’t likely to be familiar with Ann – other than from a distance.  She had been a pretty girl and was in training to be a teacher.  It was known that Roan Everett had dated her while they were both back in school.  But she had little to do with him in the year before his death.  Besides, Roan was in the ground himself.  The friends he had left behind – easily counted on one hand – were little likely to take revenge on an old love of his.  That left only Roan’s father – and there was no doubt that the man had been acting odd as of late.

Old Man Everett had asked that his son be buried up near his house – instead of in the local bone yard.  That hadn’t been taken as strange, at the time, since folk had family cemeteries all over the Valley.  But there was word that the Old Man had the boy dug up and moved elsewhere – though no one could say for sure.  And folk that had seen Everett since Roan’s death said he was strange-eyed and wild acting – not his usual self.  But losing a son – especially an only son – can change a man, Prosper knew.  Still, he thought it best if he spoke to the man, for it might be that he knew of some friend of Roan’s that had taken the dead boy’s scores upon himself.

Old Man Everett’s house was big by Valley standards and sat high in the hills.  A long elm-shaded path led to it and a fellow sitting on the house’s long, low porch could see visitors coming from a mile or more away.  When Prosper rounded the curve and caught his first glimpse of the dark-wooded structure, he could see that the Old Man was waiting on the porch and that another fellow was standing under the trees shading his eyes with his hand.  But when he pulled up to the gravel lot and parked his car, the shaded man was gone and the Old Man was sitting by himself rocking.

“Mind if I come up for a while,” Prosper called as walked up the path and when the Old Man nodded he climbed the porch stairs and sat.”

“Thought you might be up,” the Old Man said, “I heard about poor little Ann.”

“She was friends with your son,” Prosper said.

The Old Man laughed then, but there was no joy in it, “Not many was friends with my son,” he said, “Ann was a girl with good sense and got shut of him quick enough.”

“All men have their faults,” Prosper said, “And I’d be the last to speak ill of the dead.”

The Old Man nodded, “So would I.  They say the dead listen to living folk from where they are.  But some don’t hold with such things. I haven’t had much cause to speak to you, Sheriff Vance, but I wonder what you think about such matters.”

“I think I saw a fellow there under those trees when I pulled up,” Prosper said.

“Maybe there was,” the Old Man said, “Or maybe it was just them elms casting a shadow. In these hills you can’t always tell what you see.”

“Maybe that’s so,” Prosper said, “And maybe some friend of your son’s believes that he has reason to feel wronged.”

“I doubt,” the Old Man said sadly, “That there are two or three even in this world that shed a tear for Roan.”  He turned and looked at Prosper dead on then and said, “I may’ve been his father, but I wasn’t blind.  You hope and you pray, but sometimes there’s no changing things – least of all the heart of a man.”

“If you knew something,” Prosper said, “Something that would help me find the man that killed Ann and the others, you’d tell me.”

The Old Man sighed and then began to rock, “If I knew something to be told, I’d tell you.” He said, “But there are some things that walk in this world that your law has no hold over.”

“Well,” Prosper said, “I’d still like you to send me word if you hear of something – one way or the other.”

The Old Man nodded and after a while, Prosper got up and left.  As he drove down the hill, he could see the Old Man rocking still in his rear-view mirror and something dark and reddish that flirted through the shadows along the path.  A deer, maybe, but a big one.  Or maybe something else that he didn’t want to imagine.

When Prosper got back to the jail, there was a message waiting for him from the County Examiner.  There were pieces of clay embedded in the bodies, some lanced into their shattered bones.  Will reckoned it might’ve been that the murder instrument – maybe some kind of farm tool – was dirt encrusted at the time that it was used.  But the clay was the same in all instances and seemed to come from one source.

Another message asked him to stop by Hollister Hardware – there had been a break-in last night though nothing seemed taken – only a few windows shattered.  The Hollister place was right on the edge of town and well-known for its weekly card game.  It was also the place that Roan Everett had met his maker a month or more ago – bleeding out before an ambulance could make its way from the County Hospital.  There was still a blood patch on the wood floor in the back room. 

Folk said that the blood of a murdered man would never be washed off.  But Prosper knew for a fact that blood soaked into wood would not be washed whether it came from a man or a critter.  It was enzymes that kept the shadow of blood on the Hardware Store floor and not a vengeful haint. Still, Billy Hollister was in a near fit by the time Prosper pulled up to the Hardware Store and took Prosper to the backroom where the blood still looked new on the oak.  He pointed, finger shaking in rage, at four broken windows and an unhinged door.

“Son of a bitch busted up the whole back of the store,” Billy said.

“Don’t reckon you saw who did this?” Prosper said.

“Sure I did,” Billy said, “I was in the front closing up when the big heavy-footed bastard clean knocked the back off the store.”

“You might’ve called last night,” Prosper said.

“What good would it have done?” Billy said, “I had that twitchy little insurance fellow to deal with all morning.  Reckon you could wait til after.”

Prosper sighed, “Did you get a look at his face?” Prosper asked, “Did he look like any fellow you knew?”

“Oh, I knew him alright,” Billy said, “Though I wouldn’t rightly say you could call him a man.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Prosper asked, “Either it was a man or it wasn’t.”

“Wasn’t then,” Billy said, “Wasn’t anything that I ever saw before – but it was like a man and I can name the one.”

Prosper tapped the table, “I know what you’re going to say, Billy, for you’ve been saying it all about town this morning.  And you know well as I do that Roan Everett is dead and buried.”

Billy snorted, “I don’t suppose that being either would stop him much.”

“Well,” Prosper said, “That puts me in a fine pickle – there’s no law governing dead folk I reckon.”

Billy nodded, “True enough. And doesn’t that just put everything on his side.”

Prosper just nodded, which was usually best to do when Billy was taken with a conviction.  “There’s not a man in the Valley that don’t know what Everett is or what Roan was,” Billy said, “And you know that’s God’s truth!” 

“Well, if you see anything again or anyone,” Prosper said, “You be sure to let me know.”

“I will,” Billy said, “And if I see that bastard Roan Everett I’m going to put a hole in him – dead or not.”

There were times that Prosper thought he had made a bad career decision the day he took up lawing.  This was one of them and, of late, there had been quite a few.  Folk were dead and it was easy enough to see who was behind the killings.  The only problem being that the most likely suspect was dead himself.  Folk were talking.  They took to locking their doors and kept the curtains drawn by night.  Though no one mentioned by name what they all knew to be true, they kept away from dark places and fortified themselves with crosses and charms and comforts against the darkness.  Prosper was not a believer in such comforts, though he wasn’t opposed to a stiff drink on a cold night – which was a comfort of its own. 

Prosper considered himself a simple man – though, in truth, he was deep minded and though slow to speak, he said a lot.  He had seen just about all the wickedness man had to offer, as well as a surprising amount of good.  Roan Everett, by his recollection, was one of the worst human beings that the earth had ever spat up – despite the goodness of his father’s heart.  Prosper didn’t believe much in God or the Devil, but he did believe in good and evil and he knew that evil men walked among us – many with faces like angels.  Roan had been just such a man.  And the day that Keefe McCalister had put a bullet through Roan’s throat only one man had wept. 

Now, McCalister was dead, along with a good number of other folk that Roan had disliked or liked too much.  And Prosper figured that being dead was not likely to stop a man such as Roan from his desires.  There were some, Prosper knew, that believed only in the light of day and in what could be proven and seen.  Scientific folks, he imagined, lived a comforted life knowing so little about what really was.  The electric light, when it had come up and down the Valley, had shut out the shadows and put men’s hearts to rest.  But just because the dark was pushed back a bit didn’t mean it was gone or that the things that lurked in the dark of night or in the dark of men’s hearts were any less hungry. 

It was plain to see the cause behind the slew of dead and disappeared that had come upon the Valley.   The fact that most folk didn’t want to own what they already knew seemed a mystery to him.  He had, in his sixty years, known dead folk to walk more than once.  He had seen a crow speak with the voice of a girl and a river run red with blood.  He had heard, in the high hills, the sultry sweet voice of the Wampus Cat and found prints left behind that matched no creature he could name.  So when Alice Caldwell’s mother came crying to his door in the dusk, saying her daughter had took missing, he knew what had to be done.  Over the years, Vance had learned that truths, even the hardest ones to digest, had a certain taste to them.  And despite the illogic of it, he could taste this truth clear down to the bone.

So, for the second time in that long week, he drove to the Everett Place.  Though this time the drive seemed longer, knowing what he might face at its end.  Grief for certain lay ahead of him and perhaps something worse.  As he walked the lonely path that led to the house, Prosper could see even through the growing gloom the Old Man waiting in his rocker on the covered porch.  He climbed the stairs and when the Old Man did not move and he sat down at his right hand.

Old Man Everett sat staring out into the night for the longest time and then he began to rock again.  “You know.” he said simply to Prosper and then he sighed.  “I used to think,” he said, “That there was some right and wrong in this world.  And that if a man did good, good would follow after.”

“You ought to know better than that,” Prosper said. 

The Old Man nodded, “I do and yet I don’t believe it.  Don’t want to.  He was my son, and I knew him for what he was, but he was my son just the same.”

“I never knew you to be a man that didn’t stand by his principles,” Prosper said, “None could say you didn’t.”

“You know what I am, I wager, and what I done for him.” the Old Man said, “His death hit me hard.  I come close to losing him as a boy more than once and it seemed some sort of mercy that he lived.  With his mother gone, he was all I had.  I wasn’t there when he was shot. It could be that there was something that I could’ve done – even if it was only to make my peace with him.”

“He lived his own life,” Prosper said, “He was a man grown when he took that bullet.  And though maybe you might’ve kept him from that bullet, there would’ve just been another on some other day.”

“All our death’s are waiting for us one day or the other,” the Old Man said, “Even mine.”

“Still,” Prosper said, “You did the best you could with that boy.”

“It’s a kindness for you to say it,” the Old Man said, “But a boy follows after his father.  He had, you see, his mother’s heart.  She was a wild thing, but I knew from the first time I clapped eyes on her that she was all I wanted.” He chuckled and for a minute sounded almost young to Prosper, but then the moon passed by and he saw just how old the Old Man was – ancient – almost as if he was cut from the earth and stones himself. “I might was well have loved a wild cat or a bear,” he continued, “She wasn’t something to be kept. And when the boy came and she died I turned all that love in on him and maybe it was too much for him to bear.  Maybe it was too much for anyone to bear – to be so much to any other.” 

“I don’t conjure it was your fault,” Prosper said, “Every man comes up in this world one way or another and some are good and others aren’t.  A man has to take responsibility for what he does in this life.”

“Yes,” the Old Man said, “No truer words were spoken this day or any other.  And that’s what I mean to do.”

“I wouldn’t ask it of you,” Prosper said, “For whatever’s he’s done or is, he is your son.”

“I brung him into this world twice,” the Old Man said, “It lays on me to take him out of it.” He smiled then and laid his hand over Prosper’s own, “You’re a young man yet, so you might not know. But all men are called up out of the dirt – some stay in it a good while longer than others – but, in the end, all of them return to it.  Nothing’s to be done about it and sometimes it’s a comfort to return to what we are.  Dirt.  Good and clean.”

They sat in the dark, the Old Man rocking for a very long time.  And softly, Prosper heard the Old Man say, “I, of all people, should’ve known better.”

Hours passed before they heard the shuffling, heavy gait of stony dirt against the gravel path.  Roan was coming home as he did each night.  Under the full moon, Prosper could see that there was something dark smeared about his face and hands.  He reeked of sorrow and sin and the Old Man rose to meet him.  He walked down the path alone to meet his son and greeted him with a kiss.  And softly, almost lip to lip, he whispered a word turned back on itself, almost too low for Prosper to hear – almost.

The change, from life to death, is not a quick one even it is lasts only a few seconds.  And for the rest of his very long life Prosper would remember the Old Man on his knees in the dirt holding on to the rapidly dissolving form of his son.  He would see, each night in his dreams, the slow silting of the clay and the rising piles of dust around the broken form of the Old Man until he was left holding only gleaming white bones tattered with linen.  And even in his sleep, Prosper would weep.


Flight & Other Possibilities of the Human Spirit

When I was six years old, I flew from the top step of our house and landed on one outstretched toe graceful as any bird. I remember the way the air whistled around me and the slight tingling as my bare foot touched grass. I ran into the kitchen to tell my mother.

“I flew – right off the steps!”

She looked up from the bowl, her hands deep in cookie dough. “You jumped,” she said. “You’re lucky you didn’t skin your knee or worse.”

“No, no,” I said bobbing my head like a duck, “I flew. I did!”

She started kneading the dough again. “Don’t let me catch you jumping off the porch again.”

I think I left then. I tried flying every day for three months after that, but I never managed it again. I did skin my knee and one day I chipped a tooth. I still dream of it. Flying. It did happen. Of course, no one believed me. No one believes me now, and I can just feel you shaking your head. Girls don’t fly. Maybe they do in movies, but regular freckle-nosed, grass in their hair, Band-aid-kneed girls don’t fly. They jump, they fall, and they go running back inside teary-eyed hoping for a cookie.

Lots of things in my childhood were like that. They fell into two clear camps: things that happened and things that didn’t happen, even if they really did. If you heard neighbors fighting and then you saw a bruised arm, you looked away. Good neighbors mind their own business. They mow their lawns and keep their dogs on their own property. If you see a man sobbing on the street, tears falling silently, mouth open with a grief too big to bear, you move along. “Don’t stare. We all have our own loads,” my Granny would say. “God never hands out more than a man can carry.” Bad things sometimes happen. Houses burned, jobs were lost, and every one rallied to help. The church would hold a raffle to raise money or everyone would donate their old clothes and toys. If there was a death, there were casseroles to make and bundt cakes half chocolate and half white. Those were things that could be faced. They could be dealt with and put to rest. But other things were tucked away, like quilts for winter circled in lavender and lemon balm to keep the moths out. Things too big or too hard were just forgotten. Time heals all wounds, or so they say.

There was a sinkhole on my Granny’s land. It was a great and unfathomable mystery to all us kids. You could fill it up with brush and in a day or a week it would be gone. None of us ever saw it do any sinking, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. We’d feed the hole leaves and rocks, and once I fed it one of my sister’s dolls in a fit of spite. Folks said it would take anything in time. No one ever said where these things went. I asked. No one knew. But it ate things besides sticks and brush and big-eyed plastic dolls. One day, as I sat cat-quiet underneath the honeysuckle bushes hoping to see something sink, Sandra Clay came and stood by the hole’s edge. She looked like she might throw herself in–something not even the bravest of my cousins would dare. Sandra was fourteen to my eight and had sad blonde-brown hair. She wore glasses and smiled at me when I giggled in church. She stood looking down into the hole for the longest time and then said in a voice mouse-small but resolute, “I love Billy Marcum, but he doesn’t love me. He’ll never love me.” She stood a little longer and I thought I could almost hear the plop-plop of tears falling in that hole. Then she left.

And she was right. Billy Marcum never did love her. He married a red-haired woman from up north that he met while he was in college. I don’t know what happened to Sandra. She moved away after she graduated high school. But I do know that she seemed somehow happier, or at least less run-down after that day at the sinkhole. I wondered over the years, how many other women and men stood over that hole pouring down their grief. Many, maybe too many.

One day, when I was nearly grown, the sinkhole stopped drawing things down. Brush piled up and eventually, my uncle used the Ditch Witch to fill it in. “Everything’s got a core,” my Granny said. “That one’s full.” Maybe it was filled with all those tree limbs and rocks. But I think there’s only so much sadness anything can bear. Even a hole.


Cry Me a River

The dead are all around us. They are in the earth, in the water, in the very air we breathe. When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to tell me about the ghosts on the creek. There were lots of them. There was the Civil War soldier who walked the road from Franklin to here always trying to get home. There was the headless man who stalked the wagon roads mutely holding a lantern in his graying hand. There was the baby who cried shallowly from the walls of the old Milburne cabin—a house that no one had lived in for longer than a year at a time since before my grandfather was a boy. And there was the river woman. No one knew her name, but most of us, at one time or another, had seen her slow weeping walk down the banks of the river.

Oh, it’s not really a river. We just call it that. Most of us have never seen a real river. My grandfather said that he once saw the Mississippi and that it was so far across you couldn’t see the other side. Even the Duck River is really only a creek with attitude. Our river was really a creek—a big, fierce creek that became even fiercer after a hard rain, but a creek, nonetheless. You could walk across it if you found enough strategically placed stones. It was waist-high in most places, but it ran low in the summer. There were low slick, mossy places that would catch you unawares and sharp rocks that would tear right through a rubber boot. Mean catfish, big as small dogs, lived in the muddy banks, and had been known to take a chunk out of a fisherman’s leg. Men had drowned in that creek after floods or when they’d had too much to drink. Little kids had floated away right in their mother’s sight when a bad current caught them. Sometimes there were dead things in the creek—cows, birds, and things the water had carried so long that no one could name them.

Still, I never knew of any spirit to walk those waters except the Weeping Woman. I’ve seen her—twice in fact. You can only see her at dusk—right as the sun is coming up or going down. She’s not one for starry nights or the light of day. Her hair is the color of birch tree bark, pale brown and white mixed together to form a color not quite gray. She was like a faded picture. Clear, but almost cracked around the edges. Even a fool could see that she wasn’t human anymore. It was as if she had tried really hard to remember what someone should look like, but could just remember the particulars. She had hands and feet and hair, but they were the merest outlines of a woman. The only thing about her that was whole was her grief. She walked the edge of the water and cried. She cried noisily, the kind of hiccuping sobs that come from the very heart of a person. She never looked up. She never spoke to anyone that I ever heard of. She just walked and cried and left no footprints—not even after a rainstorm when the banks were so muddy-slick that a man only walked near them at his peril.

There’s a story about her. No name. Just a story. My grandfather said that his grandfather told it to him. She was a girl that lived at the far end of the creek. There were cabins there once. Now, there’s nothing there at all, but a heap of sand that the county pushed up for flood control. She was a plain girl with brown hair and brown eyes. She wasn’t beautiful or smart or particularly clever, but everyone agreed she had a good heart. She was the sort of girl that nursed injured animals, even the wildest badgers and foxes, back to health. She patched the broken wings of birds and she sang as she worked. Back then, everyone worked—even the smallest child. On a farm, the work was never done from sun up to sundown. She had rough hands from working the dirt and rough feet from walking barefoot all summer. Her hair, more often than not, had a sprig of hay or rowan in it. Maybe she had dirt on her nose some days or a hole in her calico dress. But none of that was important. The important part was that she was a good girl. Truly good at heart which was as rare in those days as it is now.

She fell in love with the preacher’s son. The preacher, a kind man himself, if a little absent-minded, was from up North somewhere. He had attended a swear-to-God seminary school and had a degree to hang on his wall. His house, which was in town, a half-day’s ride by wagon or horse, had lace curtains and a real front porch with a swing. His son, a handsome boy, who was fully aware of his good looks, didn’t work at all. He kept to his studies—or he was supposed to anyway. Most days, he rode around the county on his fine dark horse causing all sorts of trouble. His friends, equally given to mean-spiritedness and laziness, met up with him when they could. But, most of them were country boys who had cows to milk and fields to plow and couldn’t give themselves over completely to dissolution. The preacher’s wife, God-rest-her-soul, had passed on some years earlier. By all accounts, she had been a gentle woman with some money to her name. It was because of her, or more specifically her money, that the preacher and his fair-haired son didn’t have to spend their days in shop or field. Preaching, in those days, was seldom a full time job. You would often as not to see the same man you saw in the pulpit on Sundays humping it through a furrowed field with his old mule on a Monday or pounding out horseshoes as the local blacksmith. But, this preacher was a full time preacher—as rare and precious a thing in those days as a silver dollar or a blue moon.

Despite his leisure time, the preacher didn’t seem to have much time to mind his son, who tore about the neighboring farms and fields making mischief. He’d pull down scarecrows just for spite or knock down a fence slat so that cows would be found wandering dazedly on the creek bank or the road. He was the kind of boy that threw rocks at old dogs and spooked horses for the sport of it. He shot and killed stray cats and deer and left them to rot. I doubt that a boy like that, a selfish boy with his eyes on nothing but his own pleasure, would’ve ever noticed a brown faced girl with freckles on the bridge of her nose. His eyes were full of town girls with starched crinoline dresses who wore white gloves in summer and spring and carried umbrellas on rainy days. He would’ve never noticed such a regular girl even if she had been standing right in front of him offering him a glass of cold water on a sweltering day.

Love is a funny thing. It can make the hardest man go weak at the knees or make the most timid of women as brave as any lion. Love can move mountains, so they say, and I don’t doubt that it’s true. For this girl, an ordinary girl in every way, love was a revelation. Life seemed sweeter for the very presence of it, even if her beloved never looked her way. Knowing that she loved was enough, and she believed, in time, as with all things, love could only turn things to the better. Every time she saw the fair-haired boy—in town, at church, at a barn dance, or along the river, she’d smile and wave. Despite his lack of interest, she hoped that she was an ameliorating influence on him—that somehow her very goodness would rub off and he would in the end give up his wicked ways. The girl believed that like the proverbial Light on a Hill she could cast goodness by the strength of her desire into his black heart. Of course, she didn’t believe he was bad through and through. Others might believe that, but she could see in the darkest recesses of his blue eyes that some goodness—some spark of the Divine still lurked there.

Someone with less optimism or more experience would’ve given up the first time he turned away or when he and his half-drunken friends almost ran her down with a buckboard. But, the girl was one for perseverance. She’d seen that even the wildest of stray cats could, with enough kindness, be taught to eat from your hand. A dog that always bit wasn’t naturally mean, just ill treated. With enough love and patience, any animal could be taught to love. But the preacher’s son was no stray cat or bird with a broken wing. He was a man, or close enough to it for the edges of boyhood to be rubbing thin. He wasn’t mean due to cruelty done to him, but because of the very cruelty of his own nature. If a dog bit him, it was because he deserved it.

The girl should have known the warning signs—when small children and house pets run, it’s because a man’s heart is black through and through. Children and animals, so akin to each other, navigate by the standing up of hair on arms, by the feel of the wind. They know the scent of badness as surely as the smell of a rotten apple. Small things don’t survive very long if they don’t know what’s coming around the bend. After a church service, while everyone stood around reviewing the week’s gossip and exchanging recipes for apple pies and remedies against bee stings, the fair-haired boy and his friends stalked off to their own fun. The girl ignored all this. She never listened to a bad word said about anyone. Some might think that a good quality in a girl or anyone else—but in this case, there was a reason behind all the talk. There’s never smoke without fire, one might say.

Years passed while the girl mooned after the preacher’s son. During that time, the girl grew taller and more freckled and her heart grew even softer. So sweet was her nature that bees would follow her scent, mistaking her for a flower in bloom. Birds would land on her shoulder when she sat very still and children ran up to her and held her hand without even knowing her name. The fair-haired boy, her opposite in every way, only grew more perverse with time. As his face became more beautiful, his hair more golden, and his eyes the color of the sky after a storm, his heart grew smaller and harder until his soul, if he even had one, was no bigger than a pebble—and certainly no more yielding. He broke a heart a week and thought nothing of it. He drank and rode all night with his friends. Their laughter could be heard echoing in the night—and they were just as dangerous to meet on a moonlight stroll.

The girl lived by the creek in a four-room cabin with a wide porch. She liked to sit on the porch late on summer evenings when the mosquitoes had landed for the night and the honeysuckle was sweet and heavy on the air. It was a night just like that, a moist summer night, when she heard the boy crying out. It was the cry of a child and not a man and at first, she thought, that some child had fallen in the river. The water was high and swollen with a week’s worth of rain. Whitecaps swelled against the bank’s edges and caught on rocks. Fallen trees swirled by giving the water a dull muddy look. The moon was full that night and the girl could see a long way. She could see the boy’s friends standing on the bank of the river and she could see the foot log slipping. The boy, dared by his friends, had climbed out on the foot log—a long piece of pine roughly hewn and safe enough in dry weather. But with the storm, the water brushed the bottom of the foot log making it sway and buck. The boy, as foolish with his own safety as with others, walked, whistling, out on the wood, but halfway across, the foot log slipped away from the muddy bank and into the furious waters.

The boy had time to cry out and try to run back to his friends before the log slipped into the murky waters. The girl watched as he clung to the log, his bright hair pasted to his face, his eyes wide with fury and fear. With no thought for herself, she waded out into the water, the current pushing against her—her dress twisting against her legs and pitching her forward onto a rock. The boy on the log sailed past her, one hand out-reached, their fingertips almost touching, and for that one time, he really saw her. He saw her completely and she reached her hands out toward him with all her hope and love, but he slid under the water and was gone. The log swirled by, hitting the bank and gaining momentum, while the girl clung to the rock and cried. She could hear voices, his friends, calling from the bank, but she said nothing. Eventually, someone pulled her out of the water and put her to bed. She developed a fever from the cold water and her own grief, but she was young and soon regained her strength—if not her heart.

They found the boy several miles down the creek. His beauty was gone now, but the girl never saw him. She was too ill to attend the funeral—her fever lasting several days. In her mind, he remained the bright boy laughing with his friends or the desperate one reaching out for her hands

For the rest of her life, the girl loved the fair-haired boy. Death had erased all his faults—not just to her, but to the entire town. In life he had been spoiled and selfish, but in death he was given a kind heart and a loving nature. The girl, who was always kind and gentle-natured, only grew more generous and sweet-spirited. Although she was never beautiful, she could sew a fine stitch and everyone loved her. Her goodness drew men to her and several made proposals, but she turned them all down.

She lived a long life, and though she had no children of her own, all children loved her. She grew roses in her garden and was too indulgent to even pull up violets or creeping jennet. She left out crumbs for the birds in winter and milk for stray cats. And every sunset, she walked the riverbank, winter and summer, sun and rain, and thought of the boy. It seems that even in death, she still walks and thinks of him. I’ve seen her, sometimes, in the late shadows, walking with her head down and streams of tears falling from her face. She’ll pass you with a whisper of air and a faint scent of lavender and rosemary—the herbs that make you think most of loss and might-have-beens. Strangely, no one has ever seen a hint of the boy along those dark banks. Perhaps love is what lingers on in the case of the girl—and love, unlike fear or even sorrow, cannot be diminished by time or distance or even death. Who knows? But, she does walk the banks of the river, a brown haired girl watching the waters for a lover that was never hers in life.


Home Place

 
Everyone has heard of haunted houses. We all know what they look like. You see them in every cartoon and B-grade horror movie—big, drafty, darkly Gothic, and ill-repaired. I’m sure there are such houses somewhere in the world. I’m sure there’s a house that looks just like the one that Norman Bates lived in, maybe it even has a ghost or two, but somehow I doubt it. I have no doubt that some places are haunted. I’ve been to battlefields and war-hospitals that held such a sense of sadness and loss that I lost my breath and had to sit silently and cry. I’ve been to other places that felt dark and angry—hostile to my very presence. But, on the whole, I’ve found that people are haunted more than places. Spirits, ghosts, haints, whatever you want to call them seem to follow certain people. The more scientific of my friends would say that this is because those people believe in ghosts, so naturally, they’re the ones to see them. But, that’s not always the case either.
As a child, me and my cousins saw plenty of ghosts at my grandmother’s house, situated as it was beside a family cemetery, and only a couple of us actually believed what we saw were spirits. Oh, we all believed it at the time. Any eight-year-old, at night, in a dark room overlooking a graveyard will believe what he sees. But, a twenty-year-old with twelve years behind him and only a memory for a guide will usually say how silly he was to think he neighbor’s pale dog was a ghost. It must’ve been a tree or a shadow or a person taking a midnight walk, right? There’s no way it was a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts—anymore. Most kids do, you know. Even when their parents tell them there aren’t ghosts or that there’s nothing in the closet, they don’t really believe it. Kids know that parents, however well-meaning, are often wrong. How can the gut feeling of an eight-year-old stand up to a parent’s logic?

When my sister and I were children, we spent a lot of time at my Grandmother’s house which was conveniently right across the road. We lived in the country where there are no streetlights, no noises other than owls and cows after midnight, and you can really see the stars. Sometimes we would sleep out in my Granny’s back yard in cub-tents with my faithful dog, Samson, at our feet. Sometimes we slept in a pile of cousins in the big main room with the fireplace and Grandfather clock. It didn’t seem to matter where we slept. We usually saw something. Once we saw a patch of white mist rise up out of the graveyard and move slowly down the road. Once we saw a pale face looking in the bedroom window. He tapped on the window once and smiled and then faded away. Sometimes appliances would turn themselves on and off again without being plugged in. Often we saw a small blue-white light on the back porch circling and bobbing for hours.

Our parents told us that we’d eaten too much sugar, stayed up too late, excited ourselves with nonsense, or watched too many scary movies. But, my Grandmother told us they were ghosts. She wasn’t alarmed. She said it matter-of-factly. We lived by the family cemetery and, apparently, family members, alive or dead, were to be accorded visiting privileges. My Grandmother visited the graveyard often and brought flowers cut from her garden or plants for the graves. She talked to the people buried there. She’d tell them what was going on with the family. I suppose she believed it only right that they should visit her as well.

My Grandmother’s ghosts never caused any problems. They were in the house, the barn, the yard, and the graveyard. The sometimes made noises, but never anything loud—quiet shuffling, tapping, a rush of wind. My Granny said you could talk to them if you had a mind to. She talked to them. I never did. I didn’t really know what to say. I was always a little afraid of them—just like I was nervous around relatives I didn’t know at the family reunion.

Since my Grandmother has died, her house is closed up. It’s a farmhouse over two hundred years old. For the first time in two centuries, no one lights a fire in the fireplace, no one cooks dinner in the kitchen, no one sleeps in the back bedroom on the wrought iron bed. I often wonder if the ghosts still visit. Are they disappointed that there’s no one to see? Do they miss my Grandmother’s visits to their graves? Or do they talk to her in person now? Somehow, I think that it wasn’t the house that they came to see, but my Grandmother herself. Certainly, she saw ghosts in places other than her home. She saw them at my Aunt’s house, in the fields, and on the road. They never bothered her. She took them as just another part of life. I wonder whom they visit now. It isn’t me. I never see any ghostly relatives in my home or at my Sister’s house. Perhaps they’ve shifted their attention to another branch of the family. Or, maybe they do still visit the old house, hoping that someo ne will be home.


Cows Gone Wild!

 People always think cows are sweet, doe-eyed creatures that spend their time munching wildflowers and looking wistfully over fences. People who don’t have cows think that anyway. People with cows know that they’re mean, and worse, sneaky. “How could a cow weighing upwards of half a ton be sneaky?” you ask. But, believe me, cows are masters of stealth. Many a time I’ve turned around in the woods or at the far end of the field and found myself almost nose to nose with one of the devious beasts. True, cows are not very bright. Many of them have the mentality of lemmings, which makes a bad apple in the herd even worse. If you have one bovine Moriarty, then he or she has a ready-made gang of thugs.
When I was seven years old, my Mother, little Sister, and my dog, Samson were picking wildflowers in the woods. The cows, or so we believed, were in the lower pasture happily grazing. We checked their location before we left for our flower-picking excursion since they made my little sister, Susan, nervous. Sure enough, the cows were lazily munching grass and paying no attention to us. We crossed the field and the half-dry creek bed and started picking flowers on the lower bank. Samson, a handsome daschund with black and tan markings, spent his time checking holes and rotten logs for possible bunny infestations.

So, there we were, a merry foursome picking flowers. My sister had some sort of gummy candy in her pocket, half of which was smeared on her five-year-old face. I had a handful of Sweet Williams and was reaching for some Jack in the Pulpit when I heard a snort. Not a low, deep deer warning snort, but the big, throaty, “Hey I’m here!” snort of a bull. I turned and there they were – the cows. Unbeknownst to us, they had crept up behind us in the woods using one of their cow paths. The cows had paths all over the woods that they used for their daily travels, and, apparently, for waylaying hikers. Samson barked and sprang to his feet. I dropped my flowers. The bull snorted again. And, I ran. My Mother picked up my Sister who was already wailing and we took off across the creek toward the barn. I was running so fast and hard that one of my penny-loafers, all the vogue to a girl of seven, was sucked off my feet and into the creek-bank mud. I never found that loafer.

Samson stayed to our rear while we ran and slowed the bull by jumping at his nose and running between his feet. Ahh, the heroism of a fifteen pound dog! Lassie would’ve been proud and I’m sure Rin Tin Tin never showed more stalwart nerve. Samson saved us. Despite our screaming and gibbering, my Dad, the only person that the dread cows feared, couldn’t hear us on his tractor in the hayfield. Samson slowed the bull enough for us all to get to the barn. I practically leaped the rail fence and my Mom handed my little Sister over. Susan sort of climbed, fell down the other side of the railing and promptly began hyperventilating. Her face was as red as a dime-store cherry sucker (and almost as sticky). Samson darted between the rails a breath ahead of the bull. The cows, thwarted but unrepentant, started to circle the barn.

The bull, who must’ve weighed close to two tons, could’ve easily popped those rails and had us at his stomping pleasure, but for some reason the barn, the residence of the precious, precious hay, was a safe zone from the cows. They never seemed to realize that they could easily pilfer the hay and corn in the barn if only they burst through the rail fence in front of it. No. The fence was there and apparently since we were on the other side of it, we were beyond their grasp. Eventually, my Dad either heard our yells or noticed the cows odd circling behavior and drove over on the tractor.

Cows scattered everywhere. You could almost see their hangdog expressions. If they could talk, I’m sure they would’ve said it was all a misunderstanding. But, in their black hearts I know they were only sorry that they didn’t get a chance to give us a good stomping. My Dad maintains to this day that the cows meant us no harm and they only chased us because we ran. But, I’ve seen the evil in their big-brown eyes. Don’t be deceived by Cow Propaganda—they aren’t the cute and cuddly creatures you see in cartoons and movies starring adorable little pigs. Pigs aren’t really very nice either, but that’s another story.