Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  Back when it was just the two of them, before any of us children came along, they would pick up and go when Daddy got work. He may not have worked hard, but he was a good blacksmith and people would ask for him. He and Mama went all the way to Murphy, and then to Tennessee—Copperhill, Ducktown, and up to Johnson City. They went to Waynesville, North Carolina, and then to Asheville, which Mama hated because she didn’t like so many people. She missed her mountains. She said the Black Mountains weren’t the same—that they left her cold. They went to Bryson City, then to Cherokee. Then they came back to Sleepy Gap. When Sweet Fern was born and then Linc soon after, Mama told Daddy she was done moving. She didn’t plan to raise her children like gypsies. So Daddy came and went just like he always had, and Mama stayed put. She called him Old Mule because he was stubborn. He called her BeeBee, but we never found out why.

  I supposed Daddy was off now chasing another gold vein or hunting gems or maybe doing some blacksmithing work for someone. Just to be sure, I went outside and looked over on the back porch and there was a stack of wood, just as high as the house. We could always tell how long he’d be gone by the height of the woodpile he left behind.

  “How come she won’t get up?” I asked Johnny Clay. We were supposed to play on the porch and be quiet about it because Daddy Hoyt was looking after Mama, and Granny said Mama needed rest and that we weren’t to get on her nerves. Johnny Clay had some marbles he’d won off Lester Gordon, so we were shooting them back and forth. “What do you think was in that note? Daddy’s left before. Daddy always leaves.”

  Johnny Clay pointed at the wood stack. “It ain’t never been that high before.”

  “Is she gonna get up and fix lunch?” I didn’t tell him that I was worried about her. Never in my life did I remember Mama staying in bed past sunrise. It made me feel nervous to think of her in there with her face turned toward the wall.

  “I don’t know, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said. He flicked a large green marble into a smaller blue one and they rolled off the side of the porch.

  Daddy Hoyt didn’t leave Mama’s side all morning. Later that afternoon, he took Johnny Clay and me out to find the mayapple plants that grew on the floor of the forest like green umbrellas. They smelled so sweet that they made my stomach turn, and I held my nose as we picked the leaves. Daddy Hoyt said they had something in them that might help Mama get better.

  “What’s wrong with her?” I asked him. Mama had been sick before, with a chest cold or headache, but she never took to her bed. She always just worked right through it.

  “Your mama’s ailing,” Daddy Hoyt said. “And I’m doing my best to fix her.” But that’s all he would tell us.

  “You’ll fix her,” I said. “You fix everyone.” Daddy Hoyt could heal anything because the Cherokee had taught him how. When he was eighteen years old, he had left Sleepy Gap and walked all the way over to the reservation on the other side of our valley and our mountains, two ridgelines away. He went to live with the Indians and learn from their medicine man, and while he was there he met Minnie Louise Kinsley, or Granny, whose daddy was a Scottish missionary and trader living on the reservation and whose mama was a full-blooded Indian. Daddy Hoyt stayed with the Cherokee for ten years and learned how to heal people from the land and the trees and the plants, while Granny became a midwife. When he felt he had learned enough to go back home and help his own people, he took Granny with him. By that time, the Indians called him didanawisgi, which means medicine man.

  I pinched my nose and stuffed the mayapple leaves into my apron pockets. “There ain’t no one you can’t heal,” I said again. “Right, Johnny Clay?”

  “Right,” he said, his head bent toward the ground.

  Daddy Hoyt didn’t say anything to this, just stooped over and pulled up an entire plant, roots and all, with one hand. He pulled this leaf off and another and another, and left the ones he didn’t want. Each time he pulled up a plant, he dropped a bead into the hole left behind in the earth and covered up the hole with dirt. He carried red and white beads in his pocket just for this purpose. It was something the Cherokee had taught him. They said it was like a thank-you—a way of giving back—for what the earth was providing.

  Back home, Daddy Hoyt ground the mayapple leaves into a powder and added small doses of it—barely enough to taste—to Mama’s food and drink. He gave Mama snakeroot tea to bring down her fever and ginger root boiled and rolled in sugar to help with her stomach trouble. He made her a poultice of ground up poke root and laid it across her chest to ease the pain, and when that didn’t work he made one out of comfrey root and cornmeal.

  While Johnny Clay and Beachard worked with Linc out in the yard and the chicken house and the barn, I sat outside Mama’s door and waited to go in. Linc was tall and handsome and looked like a darker, quieter version of our daddy. He and Beachard had gotten a touch of Cherokee, both of them brown-eyed and lean, but Beachard’s hair was copper instead of black, exactly the color of North Carolina dirt. At twelve Johnny Clay was nearly as tall as Linc, but he was bright gold from his skin to his hair. None of them had freckles like me.

  Finally, Daddy Hoyt came out and said I could go in for just a few minutes and hold Mama’s hand or read to her. Inside the room, Mama lay still with her face turned toward the wall. I wanted to ask her what was in that note Daddy wrote that made her take to her bed, but I was worried that asking about it might make her worse. So instead I opened the Grier’s Almanac, which I’d taken down off its nail by the fireplace, and read her the weather forecasts. And then I read her a story from Farm and Home.

  Mama didn’t move or say anything, so I went over to her chest of drawers and got the family record book, which she kept displayed on top, right beside her brush and comb and the silver-plated hand mirror Daddy had bought her years ago. The record book had a red leather cover and listed every important date and event to ever happen to us. It went as far back as Ireland, to the family of Nicholas Justice who first escaped France from the Huguenots. It was a complete history of our family on Mama’s side.

  I read some of my favorite entries to Mama: “1766: Nicholas Justice and his wife move to the United States. 1781: Ebenezer, fourth son of Nicholas—Revolutionary War soldier, hero of Kings Mountain—is run through with a sword at the battle of Cowpens and nearly dies. 1792: Ebenezer Justice arrives in the Alluvial Valley of North Carolina and names Fair Mountain.”

  I couldn’t get over the fact that if Ebenezer Justice had died way back then, none of us would be here—not me or Johnny Clay or Mama or Daddy Hoyt. I loved to read the family record book. It told about modern things too, like when Mama was born and when she and Daddy were married and when all of us children came along.

  I was just reading about Linc and Ruby Poole’s wedding day, when Mama rolled over a little and looked at me. Her eyes were kind of half-open and she said, so soft I could barely hear her, “That’s enough, sweet girl. Why don’t you sing me a song?”

  I said, “Mama, what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you get up? Do you have a headache?”

  She said, “Sing me something you wrote. Have you written any new ones I don’t know, Velva Jean?”

  I said, “I wrote one about a giant that lives in a cave.” This was based on Tsul ’Kalu, the giant that lived at the top of Devil’s Courthouse. His mother was a flashing comet and his daddy was the thunder. He could drink streams dry with a single gulp and could walk from one mountain to the next. His voice could make the heavens rumble and his face was so ugly that men ran from him in terror.

  She said, “Sing that one.” And she closed her eyes.

  I sang:

  He comes out when you’re sleeping

  Creeping on all fours

  Creeping down the mountain

  Bar the window, block the doors

  Sad and lonely giant

  Living all alone

  Steal you from your bed

  So that he can take you home . . .

  I sang the whole song, and when I was done
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Daddy Hoyt was standing there and he said, “Let’s let her sleep for a little while, honey.”

  After supper Johnny Clay and me ran off to play along the tree line, where Granny and Sweet Fern and Ruby Poole could see us. We gathered the leaves that always seemed to cover the ground, even in summer, Johnny Clay kicking them into a pile, while I collected them in my dress and threw them in.

  “Let’s make the stack higher,” Johnny Clay said, and grabbed a long stick that was split off at the top like a fork. He began using it as a rake.

  “And then we can take turns burying ourselves in them,” I said.

  “And being born again,” added Johnny Clay.

  Playing like we were being born again made me feel new and light, like I didn’t have anything to be worried about. It took me back to being baptized, back to that happy moment before everything changed. When I played being born again, I could pretend that it was all happening all over again, only the right way, the way it should have happened the first time, without Daddy going away and Mama getting sick right afterward.

  When the pile was high enough, Johnny Clay let me go first. I crawled into the leaves and lay flat on the ground, closing my eyes, while he covered me up till I was invisible. “Ready,” he said at last when he got the pile just like he wanted it. His voice sounded muffled and far away.

  I lay there for a minute more, smelling the earth and the mustiness of the leaves. I opened my eyes and forced myself to stare up at the blackness. There were only tiny specks of sunlight showing through here and there. As flimsy as they were, the leaves began to weigh on me, as if pushing me down, down into the ground. I wondered if this was what it felt like to be buried alive.

  I pretended that I wasn’t buried in leaves but was standing to my waist in Three Gum River, getting saved in the name of Jesus, while my mama walked toward me, singing. I listened now for the first line—Oh they tell me of a land far beyond the skies—until I heard her voice in my head. I closed my eyes and folded my hands over my chest and prayed. Dear Jesus: please help Mama feel better.

  Then, when I felt my breath going and didn’t think I could stand it another minute, I jumped up and out of the leaves toward the sun. “Praise Jesus!” I shouted. “I am born again!”

  On the third day Mama stayed in bed, I woke up and went into her room to check on her. There was an old woman standing over her, up near the headboard. Daddy Hoyt sat in a chair against the wall with his hands on his knees, and Granny stood with her arms crossed, frowning.

  The old woman was waving her hands back and forth over Mama, who lay there sleeping. The woman looked to me like a sort of elf, small and delicate, but sturdy, with an ancient little face. She wore her white hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck and a pair of black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. Her hands were working over Mama as if searching for something.

  “What’s she doing to Mama?” I said.

  “Why don’t we go outside?” Granny said, and she shooed me toward the door.

  “I don’t want to go outside.” I ran away from her to the other side of the room. “I want to stay.” Suddenly, I was mad at Granny and mad at Daddy Hoyt and mad at this woman I didn’t know. “I want to stay right here with Mama.” I was practically yelling. I didn’t trust this old woman, didn’t want her putting her hands on my mama.

  For as long as I could remember, Granny had talked about the bandits and the panthers and the haints that roamed the woods, about the giant who lived in Devil’s Courthouse with the devil himself, or the cannibal spirits that lived in the bottoms of creeks and rivers and shot children with their invisible arrows and afterward carried the bodies down under the water and ate them. She’d told us of the Nunnehi—fair-skinned, moon-eyed people who were invisible except when they wanted to be seen. In the thick of the night, you could hear them drumming and see the lights of their fires or lanterns through the trees, and sometimes they guided wanderers who had lost their way, and sometimes they played tricks on them and led them deeper off course. She’d told us about the runaway murderer—half-man, half-giant—that lived at the very top of Devil’s Courthouse, not leaving his house except at night when he crept down the mountain to climb on rooftops and scratch on windows, looking to rob from widow women and steal babies from their cribs. He was known only as the Wood Carver because he carved things out of wood with his killing knife all day long and he still had blood on his hands. Granny said it would always be there, try as he might to wash it off, because once you’d shed the blood of another, you could never wash your hands clean again.

  She had also told us about Aunt Junie, the witch who lived alone in the woods, up on Devil’s Courthouse, raising sheep and bees, and conjuring spirits. Me and Johnny Clay used to dare each other to go up there and spy on the witch. Everybody said she could look at you and say a spell, and if you were bleeding, the bleeding would stop, and if you had a headache, it would go away. They said she could turn people into sheep or dogs and that the bees she kept worked magic.

  People said this Aunt Junie looked about a hundred years old, maybe older, and I knew that she probably was at least as old as that because witches lived longer than regular people. And now Daddy Hoyt had let that witch woman into my mama’s room.

  “Velva Jean can stay,” Daddy Hoyt said to Granny.

  Granny just shook her head at him and stomped out. I knew she didn’t trust her baby to this witch woman either, and I didn’t blame her. What if the witch turned Mama into a sheep or an old brown dog like Hunter Firth?

  Daddy Hoyt waved at me to come over, and then he pulled me onto his lap. I sat rigid and waiting, ready to jump up and knock that witch down if she started saying spells. We watched as she fluttered her hands in the air above Mama. She closed her eyes, and then she began moving her lips with no sound coming out. I jumped then, but Daddy Hoyt drew me back and wrapped his arms around me tighter.

  “How do we know she won’t hurt Mama and make her worse?” I said. I was thinking I could knock her down if I had to, and then I would yell for Johnny Clay. While I waited for him, I would say an old Cherokee spell that helped you kill a witch.

  “Because she won’t, Velva Jean. She saves people like I do, only she can do it without plants and herbs. She can do it all on her own because God gave her a special gift.”

  Aunt Junie bent over Mama, her hands hovering above her, her eyes closed. Her mouth was moving but there was still no sound.

  “There is a verse in the Bible that only healers know,” Daddy Hoyt said in my ear, “and that they never reveal to others for fear that their powers will be lost forever. That’s why she doesn’t say the words out loud.”

  I sat very still and watched her. I knew that normally Daddy Hoyt didn’t hold much stock in faith healers, but he trusted this woman, and I trusted him.

  “There,” Aunt Junie said several minutes later, nodding at Mama. “I done what I could for now, Hoyt.” She sat back, staring at Mama’s face. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Her voice faded off.

  “Can she heal everyone?” I asked Daddy Hoyt, very low so that Aunt Junie wouldn’t hear.

  He sighed and his arms tightened around me. “Not always, Velva Jean. Not all the time.”

  That night Johnny Clay and Beachard and me were sent over to Linc’s house to eat supper with him and Ruby Poole. Usually, this was cause for celebration because Ruby Poole—who was born and raised in Asheville and looked just like a doll, with her lips painted red and her dark hair curled so that it bounced on her shoulders—would let me try on her perfume and her lipstick and let me read her movie magazines, but I knew this time they were just getting us out of the way so that the witch lady could sit with Mama.

  “You want more slaw, Velva Jean?” Ruby Poole got up and carried the bowl over to me herself instead of just passing it down.

  “No thank you,” I said. I couldn’t eat a bite. I just sat there thinking about Aunt Junie and the way she had shook her head and said
, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

  By the next morning, the witch woman was gone, but not long after she left we heard a rattling and a quaking, and there came a truck right up our hill, and out of that truck stepped Dr. Keller with his black bag, all the way from Hamlet’s Mill. Daddy Hoyt met him on the porch, and they went upstairs and into Mama’s room together and shut the door.

  I knew it was a big deal for Dr. Keller to come—that it was a far, hard way to come from town—and that the only time folks called him was when someone was hovering at death’s door. Once a year, Dr. Keller sent his nurse up to Alluvial to give us our shots at school, and the night before she was supposed to arrive Johnny Clay and I would lie in bed and pray to Jesus that she would die so that we didn’t have to get stuck with a needle. But Dr. Keller only came in the case of emergency.

  I stood with my ear against the door, trying to hear what Dr. Keller and Daddy Hoyt were saying. I heard Daddy Hoyt say, “I should have known.” And Dr. Keller said, “You couldn’t know if she didn’t want you to.” And then he said the word “hospital.” I listened as hard as I could until Granny found me and made me go outside.

  No one would tell me what Dr. Keller did for Mama or what was wrong with her. He stayed for hours, and afterward he came out of Mama’s room with his black bag. I watched him climb back into his pickup truck and bump and rattle down the hill, and after I knew he was gone, I went in and sat with Mama.

  We held hands and didn’t talk. I didn’t read to her or sing, and for the first time I thought: What will happen to me if Mama dies?

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