Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  Mama didn’t say anything, just squeezed my hand and kept her eyes closed and her face turned toward the wall.

  I left her then to go try to eat dinner, and afterward, while Johnny Clay and Beachard helped Linc with the farm chores, I crawled under the front porch and sat there. I’d been doing this every afternoon for the past four days. Sometimes Hunter Firth, Johnny Clay’s old brown dog, joined me and we would sit, curled up tight as we could, and not make a sound. In my head, I thought about Mama in Three Gum River, walking toward me, and how I’d wanted to run to her and go to her and sing with her like the others did but how I hadn’t. I felt sick now that I hadn’t.

  I know you’re busy, Jesus, and maybe you haven’t had time to answer my prayers. But I need you to help me now. Mama is just a very little part of this world you made, but she’s the biggest part of mine, and if you would just spare her and let her stay here with me, I will be good and grateful forever and ever.

  I remembered what Mama once said about how we shouldn’t bargain with Jesus. She said this was something everyone did, promising him things if only he would help them, when what you should really do was ask him to help you help yourself. And then I heard Daddy’s voice, which always sounded scratchy, like he had a sore throat, and laughing, like he’d just been told a joke: “You got to be willing to give up things to get things.”

  I’m being as good and as true as I know how to be and am living my life for you, just like you asked. But if I can be better or do better, I will. Just please fix Mama and make her well. And please bring Daddy home to make things better. Whatever he said in that note, whatever he wrote, I know he didn’t mean it. Amen.

  From the house above, I heard Daddy Hoyt’s footsteps, heavy and lumbering. I knew he was leaving Mama’s room to get a cool rag with fresh water. He would soak it through and then wring it out just a little, and then he would go back in and place it on her head. He would sit with her then, and Granny would chant some of her Cherokee spells, and Mama would lie there with her eyes closed and her face fading into the pillow.

  I liked to go with Daddy Hoyt to gather his plants and herbs and help him to mix up his medicines, and I liked to talk to his patients and hold their hands and tell them it was going to be all right because Daddy Hoyt was there and he always made everything better. But this was different because this was my very own mama, and because I didn’t know if even Daddy Hoyt could make this okay.

  “Hunter Firth,” I whispered, “you listen to me.” Hunter Firth didn’t look up. One paw lay across his nose and he stared straight ahead. “Everything changes when you’re born again. But not in the way that you think.”


  When Daddy Hoyt told Johnny Clay and me that he was sending us to a bootlegger in Devil’s Kitchen, we understood how important it was. First, he was sending us to a dangerous place filled with moon-shiners and panthers—home of the giant Tsul ’Kalu, where the Devil himself was rumored to hold court, and, most of all, home of the runaway murderer. From up there you could even see Butcher Gap Prison—sprawled outside of our valley, off in the distance—where only the lowest, wickedest convicts were sent.

  And second, Daddy Hoyt only treated people with a whiskey potion as a last resort. We knew then and there that Mama was even worse off than we had thought. She had been in bed five days. It was three miles to Devil’s Kitchen and three miles back, some of it by the old cattle road, some by woods, some by Indian trails, now overgrown. Daddy Hoyt said he would go himself, but he couldn’t leave Mama, and then Johnny Clay said me and him could go just as well.

  “Why’re we going all the way over there?” I said. “There are plenty of bootleggers right here.” I didn’t much like the idea of going to Devil’s Kitchen.

  “Because,” said Daddy Hoyt, in his deep calm voice, “there’s a man there that makes a corn so fine and pure that it doesn’t leave a hangover.”

  Johnny Clay whistled at this like he knew what in the world it meant.

  “I can drive us over,” Johnny Clay said. Linc had a creaky old tractor truck that he’d let Johnny Clay learn to drive on before he was even ten. Sweet Fern hated it because it was big and loud and dirty, but Johnny Clay and I just loved it.

  “Not this time,” said Daddy Hoyt. “There’s no road from here to there. You’ll have to cut through the woods for most of the way.” He handed Johnny Clay a small coin purse. “There’s money enough in there. He may not ask for it, but you offer it just the same.”


  “I want you going straight there and coming straight back.” Daddy Hoyt looked hard at both of us. “No stopping at Deal’s.”

  Deal’s General Store had been there since Mr. Deal’s granddaddy built it in 1841, and was the only place on the mountain to buy anything.

  “Yessir,” Johnny Clay said again.

  Daddy Hoyt placed a large hand on Johnny Clay’s shoulder and the other on mine. “Be watchful,” he said.

  We didn’t talk as we set out. I walked backward, waving to Daddy Hoyt. We always waved until one of us was out of sight of the other. He stood on the front porch, frowning into the sun and raising his hand so I could see it. I hadn’t let on, but I was nervous. I thought Devil’s Kitchen must be a dark, dangerous place to have such an ugly name. I didn’t want to see the giant and I didn’t want to see the devil and have him sit in judgment on me, even if I was sanctified. I prayed that we wouldn’t run into haints or panthers or escaped convicts or, worst of all, the Wood Carver. They said he used his knife, the one he’d killed his own family with, to carve things out of tree limbs and branches—strange and evil masks, and deadly slingshots, and canes like the one Daddy Hoyt sometimes used. Only unlike Daddy Hoyt’s canes, these were carved from sourwood shoots in the shape of a rattlesnake, right down to the scales, the flat head, the tongue, and the rattle, so lifelike that it made people gasp. I thought it was just exactly the kind of thing a murderer would carve.

  As we made our way down the hill from home, Daddy Hoyt began to disappear until it was only his shoulders, then his head, and then his hand, and then nothing. I started walking forward again.

  “You reckon the Wood Carver ever comes out in the daytime?” I asked Johnny Clay.

  “Nah,” he said.

  “You reckon Junior Loveday’s locked up? He ain’t broke out in a while.” Junior Loveday was the meanest man ever to come from Alluvial. He had been rounded up and sent off to Butcher Gap Prison three years ago but every now and then he escaped. I was thinking maybe I’d like to see Junior because it was interesting to look at crazy people, but I was also hoping that he’d be locked tight in his cell where he couldn’t get me.

  “We’d have heard the whistle if he was out,” said Johnny Clay.

  It didn’t take us long to reach the valley. Alluvial—a twisty, twining walk down the mountain from our house—was just a tiny leftover spot of what used to be a town that had grown up in 1840, when gold was discovered deep in Blood Mountain. The hills around Alluvial were spotted with diggings, and old mine openings sat empty. There was still a working mine up on Blood Mountain, but most men had given up on gold except for Johnny Clay. He said there was still gold to be found. You just had to look for it.

  All these years later, the dirt of Alluvial still glittered with gold dust. It was the only place I knew where the earth sparkled. Sometimes on a windy, dusty day, I came home shining like sunlight on Three Gum River. You had to wash the gold dust off you after you walked through town.

  Before Alluvial was Alluvial, it was a stockade where Indians were rounded up before being sent west on the Trail of Tears. Granny loved to tell the story of how her granddaddy, a brave warrior and medicine man, had escaped into the mountains with his wife and baby—her mama—and how they managed to disappear so that no one could find them and send them far away from their home.

  At its peak, Alluvial was a regular town with stores and hotels and banks and a doctor’s office, but when the gold rush died out, Alluvial died with it. Th
e spur line came through years later and saved it from dying all the way. But all that was left of Alluvial now was the Baptist church; the school; three houses; Deal’s General Store and Post Office, where we went to buy food and supplies and candy; the jail; and the Alluvial Hotel, which had once been grand but was now faded and gray and empty of customers.

  As we passed the Alluvial Hotel, I stared at the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman who lived there. Her name was Lucinda Sink, and she was supposed to have hair as red as a barn and a beauty mark on her cheek that wasn’t even painted on. Even though I’d never seen her, I knew that sometimes she sat out on the wide hotel porch and rocked in one of the twelve straight-backed rocking chairs, which had been set there long ago for guests, and waited for men to come visit her. She was, according to Granny, “ruined,” although Granny never would explain why or how.

  “Stop your staring, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said.

  “Is it true what they say?” I asked him in a whisper. “That she charges men money to look at her bosoms?” I liked saying “bosoms.” It made me feel like I was doing something I shouldn’t be. Sweet Fern said I should be expecting my own bosoms soon, like this was something to be happy about, but as far as I could see there was nothing good about them. They would only get in the way of things because they kept you from climbing trees and running fast. Sweet Fern’s were so big, she never ran anywhere.

  “Where’d you hear that?”

  “Rachel Gordon. She said her daddy and Swill Tenor come down here regular.” Johnny Clay didn’t say anything to this.

  I looked with longing at Deal’s General Store as we walked past. Usually, we went inside Deal’s to look at the candy selection. Seeing how Danny was married to our sister, Mr. Deal sometimes gave us a free sample. Sometimes he even gave us a bottle each of orange Nehi or Cheerwine, and then we hung around outside to watch the train come in as long as Sweet Fern wasn’t around. She and Danny lived above the general store in an apartment she had decorated herself, and the one bad thing about Deal’s was that you were always running into Sweet Fern.

  We crossed through Alluvial, over the railroad tracks, over the river on the old wooden bridge that had been there as long as anyone could remember. Normally, we liked to bounce up and down on it, to try to make each other fall off. Today we didn’t because it wasn’t that kind of day. We started up Devil’s Courthouse, making our way along the unfamiliar hillside. Soon we were swallowed up by thick, green woods.

  Johnny Clay was following an old Indian trail that wound around the mountain like faded red ribbon. He was good at tracking. He could find his way anywhere. I collected fairy crosses from a creek bed and put them in my pocket. These were stones shaped like crosses that protected you from witchcraft and sickness. I thought I would take one back to Mama.

  Usually, we would have played Spies on a Mission, our favorite game ever since Johnny Clay had thought it up last summer. I was Constance Kurridge—detective, spy, pilot, and sometime movie star. And Johnny Clay was Red Terror—fierce code breaker and member of the Russian secret police. He’d made up Red Terror all by himself and had given him super strength; the ability to speak ten languages; and, best of all, a limp. We had a series of hand signals we’d worked out over the winter—things to mean “stop,” “wait,” “hide,” “retreat,” “run.” But today we weren’t spies on a mission. We were just Johnny Clay and Velva Jean Hart, gone to fetch moonshine for our mama who was too sick to get out of bed.

  We climbed up and down hills till I wasn’t sure where we were or if we’d ever find our way there or back. We crossed the river—now a creek—fifteen times.

  I didn’t know what would happen once we got home. I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. But for now, Mama was here and the sun was out and Johnny Clay and I were together and the giant hadn’t shown himself and the devil was staying away. I wanted this trip to last forever, because right now Mama was still with us and everything was in its place.

  The moonshiner lived in a two-story house in a clearing halfway up the mountain. You had to cross a little stream on a wooden plank to get to it. The house was white with bright blue trim, the color of a robin’s egg. It had a great, slanting roof that made me want to slide down it, and a wide porch that wrapped around the front and one side. Beyond the house there was a big black barn, a chicken house, a springhouse, a cornfield, and a small open meadow. Johnny Clay whistled. I figured there must be good money in moonshine because these people had to be rich, almost as rich as the Deals.

  “You looking for me?” a man shouted at us. The moonshiner had a fountain of white hair and a hollowed-out face and a fat wife who sat on the porch fanning herself and watching the woods. Daddy Hoyt said the old man was crazy, due to the metal plate in his head, which was put there by World War I army medics after the top of his skull was shot off by a German soldier. Daddy Hoyt said the moonshiner claimed to communicate with Jesus through that metal plate, but that he was kind and fair and would give us a good price for the whiskey, if he charged us at all.

  I was too scared to go any further than the woods that surrounded the house, so Johnny Clay left me at the tree line and marched forward to where the fat woman and the old man sat. A boy not much older than Johnny Clay was feeding the hens that clustered at the side of the house. He was tall and dark haired and covered in coal dust, and there were two white rings rubbed around his eyes. He didn’t even bother to look at Johnny Clay as my brother marched past him and up to the old man.

  “Hoyt Justice sent me for some whiskey,” Johnny Clay said.

  “What he need it for, boy?” The fat woman leaned forward in her chair and fixed her eyes on him, her gaze moving up and down over his face and clothes and his bare, dirty feet.

  “My mama’s dying.” He said it matter-of-fact and straight and looked her in the eye without blinking.

  The old man got up, joints cracking. “Come on.”

  The woman stared after them narrowly. “Mountain trash,” I heard her say. She sat back in her chair again and kept on fanning herself. Then she turned to the dark-headed boy and called out, “Baby boy. Baby boy, get you over here.”

  The boy was facing the woods where I hid. I saw him square his shoulders and say something under his breath before emptying the rest of the feed onto the ground. The chickens fell on it in a noisy pile. The boy watched them for a moment and then looked up and out at the woods like he knew I was there. He pulled a pistol from his back pocket and aimed it at a tree not far from me. I thought I was going to faint right there, and then he surely would kill me.

  “Baby boy!” his mama said. She leaned forward and smacked her hands together and the sound was like a crack. “Baby boy!”

  He shoved the pistol into his belt and turned toward the house. “Yes’m.” He hitched his fingers in his belt loops and shambled over to her, looking like he wasn’t in any hurry to get there.

  “You fetch your poor old mama somethin’ to drink and then wash up for supper.”

  The boy’s eyes flickered over to where I was standing, pressed up behind the trunk of a tree. He stared in my direction for a moment, as if he could see me. Then he turned his eyes back to the woman. “Yes’m.” He wiped his hands on his pants and walked into the house, dragging his feet. I thought he moved more like a young-old man than a boy and that he was probably the wickedest, most miserable boy I had ever seen.

  “And change out of them filthy clothes,” the woman called. Her gaze slid over to the right of her and lingered. She seemed to be looking directly at me, even though I was hidden behind the tree. I shivered. The fat woman spooked me. She seemed to see right through that tree, past my face, and straight into my brain. This might be the devil himself, disguised as a woman—a devil woman—or Spearfinger the witch, who could take any form, so, just in case, I made myself think nice, clean thoughts about Jesus.

  When I saw Johnny Clay come back with the old man, I thanked God. The fat woman was still staring in my direction. Johnny Cla
y shook the old man’s hand and came to get me, not caring if the woman saw us or not. He was holding a jar painted white so that it looked like buttermilk.

  “Daddy Hoyt wasn’t lying,” said Johnny Clay as we headed back home. He stopped and shook the jar. “Look at this. Look in the top, just here under the lid, right above the paint. See how the whiskey climbs up the glass a little? This is the purest corn I ever seen.”

  I wondered when my brother got to be such an expert on corn liquor.

  “He said he sells it as far away as New York City.”

  “No wonder he’s so rich,” I said.

  Johnny Clay started walking so fast that I had to do a kind of run-hop to catch up.

  “Did you see the still?” I said.

  “At first he made me wait in the woods and close my eyes,” Johnny Clay said. “I think he had to make sure I wasn’t a branch walker.” Branch walkers are snoopers who get ten dollars for each still they report. Just such a one had moved over to Sleepy Gap from Wrongful Mountain back in March, and one after another he got six or seven stills shut down. Two months later, Elderly Jones, the old Negro who lived in Alluvial, was fishing down at Three Gum River and found the snooper floating face down near the shoreline, shot through the head.

  “Oh.” I was disappointed.

  “But I followed him and I told him what Daddy Hoyt said, about how he’s known as making the best corn liquor for miles. That warmed him up enough to let me see it.”

  “What did it look like? Was it big? Was it loud?” I’d never seen a still before, and I was sorry now I hadn’t gone with Johnny Clay. I thought about the boy with the dark hair and the raccoon eyes and wondered if he drank whiskey or helped his daddy make it.

  “It was the biggest thing I ever seen, hid in a cave behind a waterfall. You got to go through the Devil’s Tramping Ground to get to it.” The Devil’s Tramping Ground was a bare circle of earth where no plants grew. Old Scratch was supposed to go there in the dead of night and walk round and round, thinking up his evil plans. “He’s got a rock furnace in there that he built himself. He said the waterfall hides the sound of the still, which is loud, real loud. He said he’s up there every day because you got to go up every day to stir the whiskey. He had barrels to catch it in and cases of half-gallon glass jars. You should have seen it, Velva Jean. The steam raised up out of it. I almost got drunk just standing there.”

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