Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

Because I couldn’t see with my eyes, I tried to see with my ears, my nose, my memory. I could hear the running, the beating of four legs, of eight, if you counted Johnny Clay and me. And in the distance—very faint—I couldn’t be sure, but it almost sounded like drumming.

  “You hear that?” Johnny Clay said, his breath coming in gasps.


  “Run toward it,” he said.

  We ran toward the drums. For one instant, I closed my eyes so that I could hear them more clearly. They seemed to grow louder, and we chased them. They faded and grew louder again, faded and grew louder. All the while, I could hear the panther beating down on us. Suddenly, the drums grew so loud that I wanted to cover my ears, and then they stopped altogether.

  “There!” Johnny Clay shouted.

  There were flickers of light up ahead, like lightning bugs or lanterns—here and there, lighting a path. A light would flash and then go out, and then, feet away, another light would flash. Somewhere I heard voices—from up high in the trees, from down low on the ground—close by, but too far away to make out the words. We ran for the lights and didn’t stop until we passed the edge of the woods and Beachard’s rock and reached the front porch of home.

  We raced up the steps and fell into a heap, swearing (Johnny Clay) and crying (me). We were weary and frightened and hungry and half-naked and thankful to be back. I could feel the cold sting of blood running down my leg where the thing tore at me with its claws. I suddenly felt light-headed and swoony, and I lay back and tried to breathe.

  “You’re bleeding,” Johnny Clay said, and I could hear the admiration in his voice. “It got you, Velva Jean!”

  Sweet Fern was sitting there in the rocking chair waiting for us, a lantern on the floor beside her. I saw the whiteness of her face and the vexed look in her eye. There were lines around her eyes and her mouth that I’d never seen before, and I saw that she had been crying and that her cheeks were still wet. I knew at times like this she wanted to curse Mama and Daddy for leaving her with us children. I knew she nearly hated them for it. But I wanted to throw myself at her feet and wrap myself around her ankles. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, that I’d stay home without complaining, that I didn’t need to go to the National Singing Convention, that I’d be good and obedient and I’d help her however she wanted me to—even if she had twenty babies—if only she wouldn’t let me die.

  “I been beside myself all day,” she said, jumping up, “tramping around to neighbors’ houses, having to ask about you two.” She looked down at us and I knew we must have looked a sight, all tangled up and out of breath, and Johnny Clay lying there wearing only his union suit and me in my underthings. “And look at you. Just as naked as jaybirds, just as wild as mountain trash.”

  By this time, everyone had come running—Daddy Hoyt and Granny, Danny, Linc and Ruby Poole, Aunt Zona, the twins, Aunt Bird, who hobbled along as best she could, and even Uncle Turk, who had come up from the river to look for us. I knew Sweet Fern was mad enough to spit but she also looked like she might cry again. “I could kill you both,” she shouted. Danny stepped forward and laid a hand on her shoulder. She brushed it off and stalked inside the house, and then, not even a minute later, she came right back out and bent down over Johnny Clay and me and hugged us so tight that we couldn’t breathe.

  I’m home, I kept thinking after we got done eating. Daddy Hoyt stitched up my leg where the panther got me, and I didn’t even cry because I was so happy to be home and not dead in the woods somewhere. I didn’t even cry at the burning when he rubbed spirit turpentine and brown sugar on it to help it heal. Afterward, while Granny helped me get ready for bed, Danny and Linc went out into the woods with their shotguns and their lanterns, hunting for the panther.

  Sweet Fern said our punishment was to do extra chores for two months. I had to use every last cent of my Nashville money, including the five dollars I won singing at the Alluvial Fair, to buy some new material so she could replace that ugly old dress I’d thrown at the panther, and I wasn’t allowed to work for Mrs. Dennis anymore, and now I would most certainly never be going to the National Singing Convention. Johnny Clay had to take an afternoon job down at Deal’s until he earned enough to pay for the shirt and pants he threw away. This put Johnny Clay in a bad mood, but not me. I was still so happy and grateful that I would have done anything Sweet Fern said.

  Thank you, Jesus. The moment we started running through the forest, I began praying to help me make it back. I promise you, I’d told Jesus in my head, so that Johnny Clay couldn’t hear, I promise you that if I get home I will never turn my back on you again. And I promise that I will never leave home until it’s time for me to go be a singing star at the Grand Ole Opry.

  At this point, I wasn’t sure who had saved us—Jesus or the Nunnehi. I tried to conjure the sound of the drums Johnny Clay and I had heard in the woods, or what we thought were drums. For some reason, I couldn’t hear them anymore, even in memory. Whoever had saved us, I was grateful.

  I lay on my stomach in my own safe bed with my face turned toward the window. I heard a shout from the woods and a gunshot followed by another and another. There was a scream like a woman being murdered. I pulled the covers tight around me and buried my face in the pillow and started to cry. My leg throbbed where the panther had got me.

  If it really is you listening, Jesus, I will do my chores without complaining and stop wishing for things I don’t have, and, most of all, I will get along with my sister.

  The next morning, I got up early to do the extra work Sweet Fern had laid out for me. My leg was sore and I limped a little, just like Red Terror. “You’re going to have a pretty good scar,” Johnny Clay told me, admiration in his voice.

  I pulled the corner of the bandage away to examine it. “You think so?” I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Maybe one day I wouldn’t mind wearing dresses. Prettiest face on Fair Mountain. Fair Mountain or anywhere.

  Sweet Fern didn’t say a word to us throughout breakfast, and afterward she disappeared into Mama’s room and shut the door. “You children worried her to death,” Aunt Zona said and clucked her tongue. “And her, four months pregnant.” Aunt Zona was over at our house helping out because she said Sweet Fern needed the extra set of hands. I looked at her, my mother’s older sister who was not at all like Mama, and wondered when her hair had gone gray.

  There were beds to be stripped and wash to be done, fruit to be canned, and green beans to be strung. And for Johnny Clay there were pigs to be slopped, cows to be herded and milked, and a list of things to be fetched from Deal’s. But the two of us went outside and crawled under the porch to let our breakfast settle. I rested on my stomach, chin in hands, and Johnny Clay lay on his back and stretched out his legs, folding his arms under his head. I looked at my brother and he was long and tall and still growing. There was a layer of stubble across his jaw and upper lip that I had never noticed before. I thought of the place on my leg where the panther had gotten me, and I hoped—really hoped—that it wouldn’t make a scar so I could wear stockings one day. I wondered if we were getting too grown to crawl under the porch and the thought made me lonesome, although I wasn’t sure for what.

  Linc came out of the woods then, frowning, his rifle over his shoulder. It hit me that he was a man now, tall and grown up and handsome, and that he looked a lot like our daddy, only more serious. Everyone looked new to me since we were home.

  Linc walked up the porch steps and into the house. We heard him calling Danny. In a minute, they both came out onto the porch.

  “I found the panther,” Linc said.

  I turned my head to look at Johnny Clay. His eyes were open and he was staring straight up through the cracks in the floor.

  “Is it dead?” said Danny.

  “Yeah. But we didn’t kill it.”

  “How do you know?”

  Linc didn’t say anything for a good, long time.

  “Linc?” Danny said.

  “There weren’t any bullet wounds,”
Linc said. “Its neck was broken.”

  “How . . .”

  “Like someone twisted it till it snapped.”


  First the flags appeared on Seniard Mountain—green flags waving in the breeze. They were almost pretty. I could see them on a clear October day from Old Widow’s Peak when I went up there to sing. The next time I climbed up there, I saw men standing around where the flags were. From where I stood, they were just dark figures without faces. Every now and then a man would pick up a flag and place it somewhere else.

  Next, the flags continued down to Fork River Bald and, just to the east of us, to Silvermine Bald, one ridge over. After that there were flags as far as the eye could see, off in the distance as well as closer in, surrounding us. They stretched from Beech Gap, Mount Hardy, Buckeye Gap, Parker Knob, Bearpen Gap, and beyond, until they seemed to be closing in on us in a wide half circle. Finally, there were flags across the top of Devil’s Courthouse, up where the giant kept his cave. This caused a sick feeling in my stomach that even Daddy Hoyt couldn’t cure. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but I knew what I needed to do. There was no getting away from Sweet Fern after what Johnny Clay and me had done, but I watched and waited for my chance.

  While I waited, I worked on a song I was writing about a panther that lived in the woods. I was calling it “Old Red Ghost.”

  It calls, it roams, it haunts these woods, that old red ghost.

  It knows the thing that I fear most, the old red ghost.

  I hear its crying in the night when I’m in my bed.

  I hear its crying and I know that it ain’t really dead.

  Finally, at the end of two weeks, Sweet Fern lay down in her bed with her stomach, and I was free. I ran up to Devil’s Courthouse, up to the top, and there were the flags all around on the ground in a line. I picked up each and every one, and when I was done I dug a hole and buried them and said a Cherokee spell that was meant for keeping invaders away. Then I ran back down toward home, fast as I could.

  I never told anyone what I did. I figured I had stopped that road from coming here. I lay in bed that night, too scared and relieved to sleep. I prayed the government men wouldn’t find me and take me away. If they did, I hoped everyone would appreciate what I had done for them and always remember me for my bravery.

  Sometime in late November, a truck rolled into Alluvial and eight men climbed out. Sweet Fern and I were down at Deal’s buying some calico cloth and other supplies. One of the men came into the store and said, “Is there a place we can pitch our tent around here?” It was Beachard.

  He was the only person I knew that had a way of appearing out of thin air and then disappearing just as sudden, and he could creep up on you because he walked so quiet. But right now he just marched into that store, big as day.

  I threw myself at him. He said, “Velva Jean, you’re strangling me,” but I didn’t care. I just kept my arms wrapped tight around his neck and squeezed and squeezed.

  We tried to get Beach to come back home with us and stay, but he said his place was in camp with the rest of the men. They set up their tent—mounted on a wooden platform—in the field behind Deal’s. Sweet Fern said, “It’s too cold to stay in a tent.”

  Beach said, “Not with all of us packed in there. Not with our kerosene heater.”

  Beach and the men were here to measure the route chosen by the government. Beach came up to Sleepy Gap for supper that night, and we all gathered at Daddy Hoyt’s. We built a fire in the stone fireplace and sat around the large wooden table, staring at Beach while he talked. We hardly touched our food even though Beach ate and ate. Between mouthfuls he said, “Our job is to obtain the necessary engineering data required for the preparation of the preliminary and final design and construction plans for the Scenic, to follow up the flag lines and measure the various levels, indicating the amount of fill or cut to be expected.” And all of us just stared at him after he said it because we had no idea what it meant.

  Each morning at daybreak, Beach and the other men carried their equipment and supplies up the mountains. They spread out across Devil’s Courthouse, Silvermine Bald, Seniard Mountain, Beech Gap, and Mount Hardy. The mountains were so steep and rough that they had to climb over boulders and through thickets of wild trees and shrubs, and in some places they had to crawl and be pushed up by members of the group. Beach said they had to stop and rest sometimes because their knees got weak from the weight of all their equipment. They had to watch for bears and especially for snakes. And then, when winter hit, they worked even when it snowed, even when it turned bitter cold.

  By dusk each day, they came back down to Alluvial. Johnny Clay hung around by their tent and tried to get Beach to hire him, but Beach said no. He’d heard all about the panther and our running away from Sweet Fern, and he said he wasn’t going to get in the middle of that. He said if Johnny Clay wanted to join up with the Scenic, he would have to do it the right way and ask Sweet Fern’s permission.

  It took them a month to finish their work. They finished two days before Christmas. We begged Beachard to stay, and he said yes. On Christmas Eve, he and his friends from the Scenic came up to the house and we holed up and enjoyed the snow and the celebration because we knew he’d be leaving the next day and we didn’t know when we’d see him again.

  We hung stockings by the fireplace—one for everyone, including each of Beachard’s friends—and we sang carols while Daddy Hoyt played the fiddle and Granny danced. Then Johnny Clay and I stayed up all night talking with Beach and the other men, drinking hot coffee with sugar and cream and eating the ginger snaps and caramel cookies we always baked special for Christmas.

  From here Beach and the men were heading to Richland Balsam and the mountains west of that, where they would set up camp again down in a valley or a holler while they did their work. Beach said, “Maybe I’ll be back. They’re thinking of bringing the road up through Devil’s Courthouse. We’re measuring up there and plotting it on the maps. Although when we got there, all the marking flags were gone.”

  I didn’t say anything to this. I drank my coffee and kind of whistled to myself and tried to look like I was bored by what he was saying and didn’t care at all, like I was barely listening.

  Beach said he didn’t have any news about Daddy.

  On Christmas day, Beachard left. We watched him walk down the hill, traveling sack bumping over his shoulder, talking and laughing with the rest of the men on the survey team. The rest of us sat down together to open our stockings—one orange each, a few sticks of candy, some nuts—but it wasn’t the same with Beachard gone.

  On December 31, we heard the news: Mr. Deal’s brother-in-law, a man named Joe Hamilton, had seen a map posted in the county courthouse in Beaver Ruin, where he lived. It was a map of some land he owned, up near Wagon Road Gap, and he said as soon as that map was posted the land became property of the state and was transferred to the federal government. No one had ever come to see him or talk to him or ask him if he was interested in selling. No one had even come to let him know. Granny said it was just like what happened with the Indians.

  Wagon Road Gap was south of Mount Pisgah, just over the mountains from us. For the first time, I worried about Sleepy Gap and our valley. I thought about what Daddy Hoyt had said about this being an outgoing road as well as in incoming one, but I didn’t want either. There was no place I wanted to go anymore except Nashville, and that seemed far off. I didn’t want anyone to come in or out except Beach. I was tired of people going. I was tired of going myself. I was ready for everyone to stay in one place for a while.

  ~ 1938 ~

  At the glorious tho’t how the saints rejoice!

  For they know he is coming, don’t you?

  I love his appearing, I do . . .

  —“I Love His Appearing”


  The sign was handwritten and hanging in the window of Deal’s, next to the advertising boards for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Coca-Cola, Pillsbury cake flour
, and Remington Kleanbore Shells.

  The Glory Pioneers present a revival

  on the banks of Three Gum River

  Alluvial, North Carolina

  June 19-23, 1938. 7: 00 p.m.

  Come one, come all, and rejoice in His name!

  I had never heard of the Glory Pioneers but for some reason I just stared and stared at that sign. Ever since I turned fifteen, I’d been waiting for something interesting or exciting to happen to me. Something more than being crowned Gold Queen again or being asked to a candy pull by Ez Ledford or Lou Pigeon or one of the Gordon boys.

  Ever since I turned fifteen, Sweet Fern was saying things like “By the time I was your age, I was already married and having my first baby” and “You could have your pick of any boy on this mountain.”

  “I don’t want a one of them,” I told her. I was not about to settle down with Daryl or Lester Gordon or, worse, Hink Lowe. I wasn’t about to settle down with any of the boys who ran around chewing tobacco and bragging about how many times they’d been to visit Lucinda Sink.

  Now I stood in front of Deal’s and stared at that sign, the Gold Queen crown tilted forward on my head. It was the last night of the Alluvial Fair and all around me everyone was dancing and music was playing.

  “Would you like to dance, Velva Jean?” Hink Lowe didn’t even bother to take the cigarette out of his mouth. He just talked right around it, so that it bobbed up and down when he spoke. He had grown up to look just like his daddy, all elbows and ears and knobby knees and pointy nose.

  “No,” I said.

  It was the fifth time I had been asked and the fifth time I’d said no.

  “Stuck up,” he said and walked away.

  Hink and the Gordon boys and Lou Pigeon and the others had been sniffing around the house now for months. They’d stopped asking for Johnny Clay and they’d started asking for me, but I couldn’t stand any of them.

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