Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  I thought about Janette Lowe, about her thin face and her hand-me-down dress and the way she had danced in Panther Creek the day she was saved. I thought about her dirty feet and her dirty hands and the way she carried her head, like she was a lady. I thought of her brother and her daddy and her uncles, searching for the man who had done this to her—who had attacked her. I thought of the people I knew and loved—my husband most of all—who were suddenly turning on strangers just because they were different, just because they weren’t from here.

  I said, “I think he’s my friend.”

  From a half mile away, we could see the flames. The fire inched high into the sky, over the tops of the trees, red and orange fingers reaching for the stars and the moon. We started to run.

  They were throwing things into the fire—his beautiful things. Canes, birdhouses, dancing men. Harley stood next to the fire in his ivory suit, flames lighting up his face, casting shadows. Something shone from his belt. He’d found his mama’s pistol. “Put everything in,” he said. “Every false idol. He’s bewitched them all.” Men were coming from the cabin, their arms filled. As they fed the fire, the blaze grew brighter and bigger, climbing into the sky. The Wood Carver stood apart from it all, watching, his eyes black. Dell Haywood, Ez Ledford, and Lou Pigeon stood around him.

  Clydie Williams walked through the madness, shoving his way through. He was pointing his pistol. He said, “Let’s just shoot him.”

  Mr. Deal said, “No one’s shooting anyone.”

  Clydie’s eyes flickered over to Mr. Deal, to the rest of us. He said, “This don’t concern you.”

  The men gathered around tight. Linc and the Deal boys stepped up till they were face-to-face with the others.

  A figure appeared out of the smoke and the darkness. “Go back,” it said. Lou Pigeon made a move and Linc made a move and the figure held out its arm and pushed Linc back. It said, “You’ll end up getting more people hurt that way.”

  The figure was lean and weathered. It belonged to a man with long hair and a deep voice. He wore a beard, not long like the Wood Carver’s, but short and clean. There was a knife in his back pocket. The way he stood was confident, like he was sure of his own two feet. I felt my heart do a little jump and my palms went clammy. It had been six years, almost seven, since I’d seen my daddy, since he’d come back and I’d sent him away. It was three years since I’d seen the man at the CCC camp who may or may not have been him. I used to wonder where he was—if he had made another family or if he was long gone or if he was dead. But gradually I’d stopped wondering. Sometimes days passed before I even remembered to think of him at all.

  Then the figure came forward, and the smoke cleared, and it was Beachard, looking older than when I’d last seen him, looking more like Mama than Daddy, with his narrow Cherokee face and his gray-blue eyes.

  The Wood Carver let himself be led past the fire, past the dogwood tree that stood stark against the red backdrop. He was pushed and tripped and it was then I saw that he was bleeding from the left shoulder. I started to follow him, but Beach took my arm and stopped me. “No,” he said. “This mob will tear you apart, Velva Jean.”

  The light from the fire lit up the Wood Carver’s face. It was a good face. He stood taller than the rest of them, looking over their heads, which only seemed to unsettle them and make them madder. They buzzed around like ants, throwing things in the fire, organizing themselves.

  Root Caldwell walked around behind the Wood Carver. He was staring at him. He kneeled down and looked at his legs. He said, “How does he stand on two legs? I thought he had to walk on all fours at night.”

  “I thought he changed with the moon,” said Lou Pigeon. He pointed up at the sky. “It ain’t full. Maybe it has to be full for him to walk on all fours.”

  Root Caldwell stood up. He pushed the Wood Carver a little. Daddy Hoyt said, “We need to be reasonable. We need to be calm.” His bass voice boomed, louder than usual. Root pushed the Wood Carver again. Root laughed. He was leering up into the Wood Carver’s face, looking every bit like a weasel. He stared at him for a long time and then he spat at the Wood Carver. The hackles on my neck stood up. Beside me, my brothers tensed. Granny was still sitting atop Mad Maggie, her ax gripped in her hand. Her eyes were fierce. She looked like a drawing I’d seen of her granddaddy, a great Cherokee warrior and medicine man. The Deals leaned on their rifles, careful not to point them yet because pointing them would have sparked off a civil war. The fire was reaching up toward the sky. I thought: The sun is turning black. The seas are turning red. The storm is finally here.

  Daddy Hoyt stepped forward. He said, “This man hasn’t done anything to anyone up here.”

  Floyd Hatch said, “Except for when he wanders down the mountain to break into our houses.”

  “Or snatch babies from their beds,” said Ez Ledford.

  Daddy Hoyt said, “This man never leaves this house. He keeps only to the woods surrounding. He doesn’t come down the mountain.”

  Clydie said, “All the outlanders got to go. There’s been nothing but trouble since they came here. We’re never going to have another in our valley.”

  In the midst of it all, in the black of the night, Harley stood out. In his white suit, he was the only one you could see clearly in the dark, on his own, apart from the fire. He said, “Let’s take him down the hill. There’ll be a midnight train coming through. We can put him on that. Make sure he leaves the valley.” If you change your mind, there’s a midnight freight that’s passing through on its way to Alluvial. I thought of the dirty moonshiner’s boy and of the runaway orphan girl he had told that to all those years ago.

  Beach said, “You’re not taking him anywhere.”

  Clydie said, “Then we’ll kill him right here.”

  Beach said, “Well you can just kill me too.” He walked over to stand beside the Wood Carver.

  Granny jumped down off Mad Maggie. She walked right up to Clydie Williams, standing over him like she was looking down on a child. She said, “And me also.” And then she went over to stand in front of the Wood Carver. Linc and the Deals followed her, gathering close around him. Then came Uncle Turk, Nomi, Reverend Broomfield, Reverend Nix, and Daddy Hoyt.

  Harley was staring at me. He said, “Velva Jean.”

  I said, “I guess you can just shoot me too, Harley Bright.” I joined my family.

  The muscles in Harley’s jaw were twitching. He was mad—oh, was he mad. Everyone was looking at him and at me, at him, at me. I knew he needed to save face and fast. He said, “No one’s shooting anyone. But we are sending this man off this mountain.” His voice had turned cold. He wasn’t using his preacher voice anymore, the one he used as much for himself as for other people because he liked the sound of it. Then he said, “ ‘But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table.’ ” He looked right at me when he said it.

  Brother Harriday said, “Amen, preacher.” I looked for him and there he was in the crowd, dressed in a white shirt, his black-rimmed glasses catching the light of the fire. I thought: Brother Harriday? Not you too.

  Harley said, “ ‘In my name shall they cast out devils.’ ”

  Daddy Hoyt said, “Marlon Day, your mama comes from Franklin, doesn’t she?”

  Marlon said, “What?”

  “Doesn’t your mama come from Franklin?”

  “Yessir.” Marlon looked confused.

  Daddy Hoyt nodded. He rubbed his chin. He said, “So that makes you one-half outlander.”

  Marlon stood there, shotgun in his hand, trying to make sense of this.

  Harley said, “ ‘Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.’ ”

  Daddy Hoyt said, “And Dell Haywood, your mama’s people came here from Tennessee, as I recall, just one generation back, which means you’ve got some outlander blood yourself.”

  Harley was watching Daddy Hoyt, watching the men. He said, “ ‘The people which sat in
darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ”

  Daddy Hoyt started pacing, walking from one man to another, peering in their faces, like he was studying them. “Ez Ledford, you may not know this, being so young, but neither your mama nor your daddy was born here. They was born right over the mountain, right over by Civility. They came over here to give you a better life, to raise you and your brothers and sisters in this nice valley. But Wrongful Mountain is definitely not one of our mountains, which means that you, my boy, are a full-blooded outlander.”

  Ez looked like he wanted to pass out, right there on the ground.

  Before Harley could open his mouth to say anything, Daddy Hoyt stopped in front of him. He was taller than Harley. Daddy Hoyt stared down at him, looking Harley right in the eye. He said, “Harley Bright. Your mama was from here. Her people go back a ways, it’s true. But the Brights—now help me remember.” He rubbed at his chin some more. “Your daddy grew up here, but his daddy and mama came from somewhere else. I want to say it was somewhere over by Bandana or Celo, but no, that don’t sound quite right. Somewhere around the Toe River Valley.”

  Daddy Hoyt waited for an answer. Harley had his eyes fixed on him. They just stared at each other, neither one blinking. Finally I said, “They were from Kona.”

  “Up in the Black Mountains?”

  Harley didn’t say anything to this. Daddy Hoyt just nodded. He said, “So that makes you part outlander, too.”

  “What’s your point?” said Clydie.

  “My point,” said Daddy Hoyt, “is that you should know yourself before you pretend to know someone else. You have to be careful when you’re labeling folks, saying he’s this, she’s this, and deciding to send people away based on something you say they are. Because you just might be that same thing. Who are you to make the rules? To play God? Who’s to say where to draw the line? You sent Elderly Jones away, but he’s more of a native to this place than a lot of you: more than Ez here, more than Marlon, more than Harley Bright. Elderly goes back at least a generation on both sides of his family.”

  Daddy Hoyt stood, hands on hips, in the middle of all the men that were gathered and staring at him. He said, “Maybe my family should be the ones deciding all this. After all, we were here before any of you. We came here and named that mountain long before you all ever set foot here. To us, you’re all outlanders. But you don’t see us rounding people up, just because one outlander did a horrible thing to one of our own. You don’t see us blaming every stranger for the sins of that devil.” He turned in a circle, gazing from one face to another. He was giving each man a good, long look. For a moment, I thought he was finished, that he had said his piece. Then he said, “You got to be careful before you send people off on trains. Because just as easy, it could be you.”

  It was over then and we knew it was over. A few of the men drew back. Shorty Rogers and Dell Haywood stood there like they were frozen. Ez Ledford looked mad enough to spit. Marlon Day wiped at his eyes so hard, I almost thought he was crying. I stared at him and then he looked down at the ground and wouldn’t look up again.

  Daddy Hoyt stood tall—taller than all of us. He looked like a man ten years younger. His eyes shone out and he stood straight and not bent. Behind him, the Wood Carver disappeared into shadow, becoming a part of the woods and the night. The men stayed in place, looking stunned, angry, hurt, lost, the half-light of the moon hitting their faces. Brother Harriday sat down on the steps of the Wood Carver’s house and began to cry.

  Harley stood there, the fire blazing up behind him. He was white against the night, against the flames. He scanned the crowd and finally his eyes settled on me.

  I watched as the men faded away down the mountain, one by one, two by two, grumbling, cast down, heartbroke, some still hungry for blood.

  Daddy Hoyt and Mr. Deal and my brothers were trying to put the fire out. They were dragging things from the ashes and trying to save them. On her knees, Granny was repeating an ancient Cherokee prayer that her granddaddy had taught her. Reverend Broomfield stood to the side, tears running down his face. Reverend Nix was singing hymns.

  Harley walked over to where I was standing. He said, “Let’s go home, Velva Jean.” His voice was flat. He barely looked at me. The fire caught his face and made it glow. I thought how handsome he was, but that it didn’t mean anything to me, that it was like looking at a picture in a movie magazine or a lipstick down at Deal’s. It was something outside myself that I could see was pretty but that didn’t touch me in any way. He reached for my hand. He rubbed his finger over my wedding ring. He said, “I been neglecting you.”

  I thought: Don’t you try to make nice with me, Harley Bright, just like you do after you don’t get your way. Just like you do when you need to get your footing back. Now you decide to listen. Suddenly you pretend to understand. I don’t believe it for a minute. He was looking at me in a way that used to buckle my knees. He had his hand on my face. His eyes were calm now—like Three Gum River after a rain. There wasn’t any sign of the devil in them. He said, “I love you.”

  I thought—

  Just that.

  I thought nothing.

  I said, “Harley, I’m tired. I’m going to help Daddy Hoyt clean up and then I’m going to go home with them so I can see Beach. I’ll be back tomorrow.” I knew he wouldn’t argue with me. He stood back a little. He looked hurt. But he didn’t argue.

  He said, “Okay, Velva Jean. Whatever you need to do. I’ll see you at home then.” He leaned in and kissed me, first on the forehead and then on the lips, very light, almost like he was nervous to touch me. Then he straightened and smiled and it was a sad smile but a real one. He said, “Prettiest face on Fair Mountain. Fair Mountain or anywhere.”

  Tears sprang to my eyes. I couldn’t help it. And then he vanished into the woods.

  “ ‘And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, Live, and grow like a plant in the field.’ ” Daddy Hoyt held his hand on the shoulder of the Wood Carver as the Wood Carver sat up behind his house, on the rock face that hung out over the mountain like a stone porch. Daddy Hoyt had filled the wound with soot and cobwebs and then made a tourniquet out of a rag and a stick.

  “I’m not a blood stopper,” he said. “I’m not a faith healer like Junie. But that’s a phrase she taught me, and I think it should work, along with these other things.”

  With his dark eyes, the ones that barely let in light, the Wood Carver stared at my granddaddy. He looked tired and weak. It was strange to see him look that way. He said, “Hoyt Justice. I made you something.”

  “Rest,” Daddy Hoyt said. “We’ll be right here.”

  “A crutch for your rheumatism, carved out of balsam wood.” The Wood Carver gazed out past us, at nothing. He said, “I’m sure they burned it with everything else.”

  I was staring at Daddy Hoyt. I said, “You’ve been here before. That’s how he knew me. That’s how he knew my family.”

  The Wood Carver kept his face still but turned his eyes to look at me. He held up the fingers of the hand on his good arm. I took them without thinking. He squeezed my hand, just slightly. His eyes went back to Daddy Hoyt and then back to me. “Good brace roots,” he said.

  I sat with the Wood Carver and for a long while we didn’t speak. Then, when he felt strong enough, the Wood Carver stood, face to the sky, staring out over the mountains. I looked at his eyes and followed them and saw that he wasn’t staring at the mountains at all, but south into the valleys—Pinhook Gap, Bee Tree Fork—that lay below.

  I said, “Do you ever go down there? To see her?” I pointed toward Bee Tree Fork. When he didn’t answer, I said, “I hope she’s forgiven you and that you can be together someday.”

  He was quiet. I tried to think of what I could say to him to make up for all that had happened, all we had brought upon h
im. I said, “They’ve almost got the fire out. The Jesus tree is fine. I guess it will take more than a fire.” Then I said, “I am so sorry.”

  He shifted a little. “It wasn’t you,” he said.

  “You can carve more treasures,” I said. “You can start again. I’ll help you. You can carve more dancing men and more birdhouses and more canes.”

  “Don’t you see?” the Wood Carver said. “They’ve violated the sanctuary of my home. They’ve violated the spirit of who I am. There’s no going back, Velva Jean. This place will never be the same.”

  I said, “Are you worried about the road coming through here?”

  He said, “It’s more than that now.”

  I heard my name from down below, somewhere in the distance.

  “Go,” he said. “And remember what I told you, about running to something.”

  I didn’t want to move because I was afraid if I did I might never see him again. I stood there beside him, not saying anything, listening to my name being called over and over. I wanted to ask him about May. I wanted to know where she was, if he ever planned to go to her, to be with her for good.

  But instead I looked out over the mountains, out toward Tennessee and up toward Asheville. Somewhere below, a train was carrying my friends out of this valley—Elderly Jones, Dr. Hamp and Mrs. Dennis, Butch Dawkins. I wondered where Butch would end up, where his journey would take him next. I supposed this was just a part of that journey, just another part of his destiny. I supposed I was just a small part of it, too. I imagined him landing in some other valley, in some other town, writing songs with some other girl.

  In the distance, up on the ridgeline in the glow of the half-moon, I could just make out the new road that was being forged across the Blue Ridge. I lowered myself over the side of the rock face and dropped to the earth.

 
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