Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  On one side of the tracks there was a wall of rock three hundred feet high. On the other side, the black nothingness of Terrible Creek. This was one of the steepest grades, the sharpest curves. The engine had jumped the track, shot across the other tracks at the right-of-way, and smashed into the wall of rock. When the engine hit, the boiler exploded. The baggage car, just behind it, had got free somehow, rolling on down the rails until it stopped, easy as you please, two hundred yards away. But the mail car, just behind that, had slammed into the locomotive so hard that it flattened itself, and then the cars right after smashed one on top of the other—one, two, three—until they piled up into a mountain of twisted steel and glass. The roof of the third car was torn completely off, just like it was made of paper. The next eight cars were turned on their sides, windows broken. Here and there, feet poked out of them, or legs or arms. The last four cars stood upright.

  The smoke was so thick you could barely see, and I was coughing so bad that Daddy Hoyt handed me his handkerchief and shouted at me to get back in the truck. “No!” I hollered.

  You couldn’t hear yourself think. It seemed like hundreds of people were climbing through the wreck, looking for survivors. They came from the hollers and the mountains, from the CCC camp, the band mill, the logging camp, and from town. A rescue crew was already working with searchlights and acetylene torches, but we moved in darkness. On the ground, train cars were mixed up and jumbled, smoke rising, people screaming, bumping in the blackness. Women moved in nightgowns, like ghosts, some of them bleeding, crying. Men in pajamas sat on the ground, on an upturned boxcar or on some part of the rubble, and waited to be helped. I started for the locomotive. “Harley!”

  Daddy Hoyt picked me up and pulled me back. He shouted something over his shoulder, and Johnny Clay grabbed hold of me. I fought him, kicking him and punching him and slapping him hard. “Harley!” I shouted.

  “Stop it, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay yelled.

  Linc and Danny were making their way toward the engine. Daddy Hoyt was talking to a man in a black hat. Men and women were wandering through the wreckage, crying—some dressed normal, some dressed in nightclothes. The people on the train had been sleeping when it happened. They hadn’t had any warning. They picked their way over great beams of wood, piled high like kindling, and rocks and water to the cars that lay half-buried, half-crushed on their sides, smoke rising up and covering everything.

  Linc and Danny disappeared into the crowd of men who were pushing aside pieces of glass. I could see Jessup nearby, his arms around a little boy. I saw men I recognized from the Scenic. I didn’t see Mr. Deal or Coyle or Reverend Broomfield anywhere. The crowd had swallowed them whole. But Uncle Turk was there with his Cherokee wife, carrying people out of the ruins. He looked like a full-blooded Indian himself, his long braid hanging down his back.

  A man sat nearby on a hill of fallen beams crossed like charred pick-up-sticks. He held his hat in his hands and he was weeping. He wore a jacket that had a patch on it. “Assistant Foreman” the patch said.

  “The train came too fast,” he said when he saw us looking at him. “All trains are under orders to reduce speed when approaching this curve. There’s a maximum speed of forty-five miles per hour. I went to the north end of the bridge to give the engineer a signal, but he was going fifty-five, maybe sixty.” He wiped his eyes. “The engine skipped the track then went down, and then came the mail car, and then the boiler burst. It was like it was happening under water, like time slowed down. I could see the engineer’s face. Straight Willy Cannon, on account of he’s straight as an arrow. A straighter guy you couldn’t hope to find. And now he’s dead.”

  “Dead?” My voice sounded like it was coming all the way from Alluvial. All I could hear were Harley’s own words: “If there’s a wreck on the line, it’s the engineer and me that are the ones most likely to get hurt or killed.”

  Please God, don’t let Harley be dead. I had been thinking it over and over. Please don’t let him be dead. I will do anything you want. I will give up anything. I will stay at home forever and never leave and never even dream about going to Nashville. I will do nothing but good all my life. Just please, please, please don’t let Harley be dead.

  All around me were people with loved ones and families like mine who were praying for them to be saved. I thought about all the bargains that were being made with God right that very minute and wondered if mine would be heard among all those others.

  One of the rescue workers found Harley lying on the banks of Terrible Creek, pinned there by an upper berth. At first, he said later, he thought Harley was dead—he was lying so still, just like a corpse, his chest and stomach burned from the fire, his right leg bent like a pretzel, his shirt melted away from the heat—but then he blinked his eyes open and stared up at the man and said, “My leg is gone, ain’t it?”

  The rescue worker—whose name was Scott Benjamin Jefferson Davis Redbone III, but who everybody called Big Ben—ran away from the creek and grabbed two men, the nearest men he could find, and they went back to the creek bed and pulled the berth off Harley and put their arms around him as careful as they could and picked him up and carried him out of the smoking, burning wetness to dry land. I couldn’t tell at first what they had when they came out of the darkness, three grown men bent over the weight of another. Then I saw two boots and two hands hanging down, fingers dragging the ground, and a mess of dark hair.

  I picked up my skirt and I started climbing through the steel and glass and downed wires to get to him. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive. My throat had gone so dry that I couldn’t swallow. Someone was shouting my name, but I couldn’t tell from where. I just wanted to get to Harley.

  “Back away, Velva Jean,” Linc said when he saw me coming. He had come up from nowhere, out of the smoke and the steel. His face was red from the heat. Trickles of black ran down his forehead and cheeks. “Some of those may be live wires.” Big Ben and his men carried Harley to a flat patch of ground, covered in scrubby grass, and laid him down on top of it.

  “We need a doctor over here!” Big Ben yelled. Then he got to his feet and ran for one himself.

  When I moved in toward Harley, Linc grabbed my arm. “You let the doctors do their work. He’s bad off, Velva Jean. He was near that boiler when it burst, standing right there beside it. That explosion knocked him clean out of the engine and into Terrible Creek. It’s a miracle he survived.”

  “Go get Daddy Hoyt,” I said. “Daddy Hoyt can fix him.”

  “He can’t fix everybody,” Linc said. I thought it was mean of him to say so at a time like this.

  “Find him,” I said.

  He ran off into the night.

  I sat down by Harley. His eyes were closed. His arms and face were black with coal dust. His chest and neck and stomach were burned raw, scraped pink and red practically down to the muscle. He looked like an animal that had been skinned. I made a move to touch him, then pulled my hand away, letting it hang there in the air over him. His shirt was burned away so that here and there only tiny spots of blue held on to him. The rest was flesh, angry and blistered. His left leg lay like a normal leg, thrown out straight and long, the boot tilted out to one side, pointing up toward the trees. But the right leg was twisted weirdly, meanly, in a way I’d never seen a human leg do. There was blood at the knee and at the ankle. One of the men saw me staring at it. “Best not look,” he said, and I turned away.

  I took Harley’s hand and watched his face to see if he would notice. Nothing. “Harley,” I whispered. Nothing. “Harley,” I said a little louder. Nothing.

  “You his wife?” Big Ben was back. There was a short man with him. The short man had gray hair and glasses and a red medic symbol on the sleeve of his coat. He carried a bag.

  “Yes,” I said.

  “He’s lucky to be alive,” Big Ben said. “He’s lucky he can breathe.”

  I nodded. The doctor unrolled bandages from his bag. He kneeled down beside Harley. “Christ,” he s
aid. “He was in the engine?” He looked at me. I nodded again. He looked away, busy working.

  I sat back, still holding Harley’s hand, watching, and waited for Daddy Hoyt to come fix him.

  There were voices everywhere, and the sounds of people in pain. I heard someone say there had been convicts in the very last car, separated from everyone else. They could find all the prisoners but one. There were seven of them being taken to Butcher Gap Prison. But now three of the guards were dead and one of the convicts was gone missing. No one was sure if he was with the dead or if he’d run off in the confusion.

  Daddy Hoyt and the doctor were in discussion over Harley. I had stopped listening and now their voices joined the background hum. I was tired of listening. There was too much to listen to.

  One of the lawmen was saying, “He could be anywhere by now. Impossible to tell until daybreak or till we get more goddamn light in here.”

  The rain had stopped. The clouds shifted. The sky was clearing. It was still dark, but the moon was breaking through. It was probably past midnight now. In the new light I saw a man standing in the wreck, just one of many men. But he was taller than most of them, black hair flowing, long beard, hat pulled over his eyes. Shirtsleeves rolled up, long muscles, and favoring his left leg. He was stronger than three men. He was pulling bodies from the cars that were stacked one on top of the other. He could carry two bodies at a time. His face was wet, but not from rain or sweat. He was doing something that the other men didn’t seem to want to do—he was taking out the dead.

  When he pulled them out, he would lay them on the ground, not throwing them down like some of the other men did, but gently, like he was afraid he might break them. He was folding their hands over their chests and closing their eyes. Then he would go back for someone else. I was watching him so hard that when he came out by himself, looking around him like he needed help but didn’t want to ask for it, I got up and went to him.

  The Wood Carver didn’t say a word to me about what I was doing there or what he was doing there, down out of his little cabin on top of the mountain. Instead he said, “There’s a woman in there with her husband in her arms. She won’t let him go. He’s dying or dead, I can’t tell. But she has a chance. I need your help.”

  He ducked back into the train car. I waited. I looked over my shoulder toward where Daddy Hoyt and the doctor were bent over Harley. Daddy Hoyt was doing something I couldn’t see while the doctor stood back a little. I hunched down and went in after the Wood Carver.

  Inside the car was only blackness. I reached my hands in front of me, feeling. “Here, Velva Jean,” the Wood Carver said. His voice was deep, calm. I followed it. I felt his hand, large and rough, taking mine and guiding me.

  The smell was stale and sour and rotten. It made me wretch.

  “Breathe through your mouth,” the Wood Carver said.

  There were bodies here and there. The steel of the cars was wrapped around some of them. There was blood everywhere. And the sound of crying. The woman was lying underneath an upper berth, her arms around her husband.

  “I need you to pull her out when I lift this off of her,” the Wood Carver said.

  “I’m not leaving him,” the woman said.

  I looked at the woman. Her husband lay against her. It was hard to tell if he was dead or alive.

  “Velva Jean,” the Wood Carver said. “I need you to pull her out when I lift this up.”

  “Yessir,” I said.

  I crouched down beside the woman. She was bleeding from her head right down into her eyes. She didn’t even blink it away. She just looked right at me through the blood. “I’m not leaving him.” I thought about Harley and him lying out there, unconscious, fighting to breathe. I thought about all the deals I’d been making with Jesus. I looked at this woman’s husband close-up, and I reached over and I felt his skin and it was cold and dead, just like Mama’s when I felt it in the coffin.

  “Ma’am,” I said. “We need to get you out of here. You need to come with us and then we’ll do what we can for your husband.” I didn’t know what else to say to her. Then I said, “He wouldn’t want you sitting here like this when there are people here to help you.”

  She started crying harder. I put my arms around her and I worked my hands up under hers so that she had no choice but to loosen her grip on her husband. Lord, forgive me.

  The Wood Carver leaned all his weight into the upper berth and flipped it like it was no heavier than a pancake. I pulled the woman out and we tumbled together, and then the Wood Carver picked her up and carried her out of the train.

  I ran for help. Because I couldn’t find a doctor or a nurse, I ran to one of the lawmen, the one who had cursed the lack of lights, and told him we’d found a woman alive in one of the first four cars.

  He came quickly after me, talking into his radio, to where the Wood Carver waited in shadow, holding the woman in his arms. I thought how brave the Wood Carver looked, so tall and strong and larger-than-life. He stood with his head bowed down over the woman, his hat covering his face. The woman was crying now, her head against his chest. Her eyes were closed.

  The lawman said, “You’re a hero.”

  The Wood Carver said, “No more than anyone else.”

  The lawman was looking at him, trying to see his face. The Wood Carver set the woman on the ground, soft as a feather. She opened her eyes and said, “My husband.”

  “Her husband is still inside,” I said.

  The lawman said something into his radio about needing a doctor. Then there was static and he shook it. “Goddamn radio,” he said. “Never works. Have to go find one myself.”

  The Wood Carver watched him go. And then he walked toward the train. I looked toward Harley. Daddy Hoyt was still with him, but I didn’t see the doctor. I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to leave the woman alone. I sat down next to her. “My husband is in there,” she said.

  A few minutes later, the Wood Carver returned. He was carrying a body. He laid the body down on the ground near the woman. He crossed the man’s arms over his chest. He closed the man’s eyes. The woman started crying again. “Thank you,” she said.

  “Go back to your husband, Velva Jean,” he said.

  When I got back to Harley, I looked over toward where the woman sat, on the small rise of a hill, her husband laid out beside her. Somebody was tending to her. The lawman was there, too. But the Wood Carver was nowhere to be seen. ~

  Danny Deal handed the truck keys to Johnny Clay. Danny had lost his hat somewhere in the confusion, the blue hat that Sweet Fern had given him two Christmases ago. He had wrapped his coat around a boy whose shirt was blown right off him in the blast. Danny told him to keep it. Now Danny had his sleeves rolled up over his elbows. Like Linc, his face was red and wet. He didn’t seem to feel the cold. “You take Velva Jean and Harley home in the truck. I can ride home with Daddy and the rest.”

  Danny and Johnny Clay carried Harley to the yellow truck and laid him down in the back. I took off my coat and rolled it up and made a pillow for his head. His eyes fluttered open for a minute and he looked up at me. “Velva Jean?”

  “I’m here,” I said.

  “Straight Willy’s dead.”


  “They’re all dead but me.” He closed his eyes again. He’d been going in and out of consciousness since they found him. His breathing was short and raggedy. I brushed the hair away from his face, careful not to touch his burns, careful not to bump his bad leg, which the doctor had set with a piece of wood and some strips of cloth. “You give him a poultice of comfrey leaves or paper soaked in vinegar to help take down that swelling,” Daddy Hoyt had told me. “And as soon as you get home, you send Johnny Clay for Aunt Junie. You hear me? As soon as you get home, Velva Jean.”

  “I’ll take good care of your truck,” Johnny Clay said to Danny now. My brother took my hand and helped me down.

  “You’d better,” Danny said, but he was smiling.


/>   Aunt Junie sat on the edge of the bed beside Harley. Her little hands worked and her glasses slid down her nose and she talked the fire right out of him. “God sent three angels coming from the east and west. One brought fire, another salt. Go out fire; go in salt. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” She chanted it three times softly, moving her hands above and across Harley’s chest, pushing her hands away from him, and then blowing on the burn.

  Afterward she stood up and pointed at Johnny Clay. “You,” she said. “Repeat it three times and do just what I did.”

  “I’ll do it,” I said.

  “Has to be him for it to work,” Aunt Junie said. “I can’t teach a person of the same sex. It has to be a man.”

  Johnny Clay looked at Harley lying there, and then he looked at me. He frowned and for a minute I didn’t think he would do it, but then he rolled up his sleeves and leaned over the bed. “God sent three angels coming from the east and west,” he said. He moved his hands above Harley’s chest, as if pushing the burn away toward the door. “One brought fire, another salt . . .”

  “Good,” Aunt Junie said when he had repeated it three times. “Get the daddy in here.”

  “The daddy’s crazy,” Johnny Clay said.

  “I don’t care if the daddy’s a wild rabbit. Get him in here,” she said.

  Johnny Clay disappeared and returned a minute later with Levi. The old man was wild-eyed and sad. His cheeks were damp and he smelled of whiskey.

  “You,” Aunt Junie said. “Repeat this and do what I do.”

  Levi stared down at her in alarm. I patted him on his back and rubbed in little circles between his shoulder blades where they knocked together like chicken wings.

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