Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I avoided being alone with Mrs. Dennis in the following weeks, running out of school just as soon as she dismissed us, not even waiting for Johnny Clay. One Saturday in October, I got up early and did my chores, and then I crawled under the porch and read the books I’d brought home from Dr. Hamp’s: The Little Prince, which was written by a Frenchman, and Roughing It by Mark Twain. When I got tired of reading, I watched Beachard. He was carving “Where Is God?” on a rock the shape of a pumpkin that he had dragged out of the woods.

  “What are you going to do with that one?” I called to him.

  He didn’t even look up. “Carry it to the top of Old Widow’s Peak and leave it there where everyone can see it from three states.” He had just come back from the peak not two days ago to report that he’d met a man up on the mountain named Getty Browning who had walked from Virginia across the mountaintops. Mr. Browning told Beach he’d had some help when he first walked that route from a man from our mountains, a man named Lincoln Hart. Beach didn’t tell Mr. Browning that Lincoln Hart was his daddy. He just shook the man’s hand and left.

  “God’s in heaven,” I said.

  “How do you know?”

  “Because it says so in the Bible. He lives there with Jesus.”

  Beachard didn’t say anything to this. He just went on carving.

  “They live up there with Mama,” I said, although I secretly wondered if this was true.

  Beach’s chisel went tap tap tap, tap tap tap. His hair caught the sun and looked more red than brown. “Are you sure?”

  I hesitated. I wasn’t sure about anything that had to do with God or Jesus anymore. But where else could they be? I said this aloud now.

  Beachard stood up straight, tapping the chisel against his leg. He stared up at the sky and then off toward the woods. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand and then he bent back down over the stone. “They could be anywhere, I guess. If they’re anywhere at all.”

  “Well where do you think God is?” I asked. I felt a slight creeping in my heart. It was one thing to know where God was or Jesus, and to know they just weren’t listening to your prayers. It was another to think they might not be anywhere.

  “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s what I’d like someone to tell me.”

  I watched him for a while until I couldn’t think about it anymore, and then I lay on my back under the porch and thought about my life dreams. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure about these either. What if, when all was said and done, I didn’t have what it took to sing at the Opry? What if, when it came down to it, I wasn’t that special and had an ordinary voice and was normal like everyone else?

  What would happen to me if I got to Nashville and discovered that I wasn’t very good? What if I returned home “ruined” like Lucinda Sink? Would I have to live at the Alluvial Hotel and rouge my bosoms? What if I never grew any bosoms big enough to rouge? I felt my chest where my bosoms should be, but where there were only two little bumps, barely bigger than quarters. What would I do if I couldn’t sing? What would my life’s dream be then?


  By November the air was turning cool and dry, and the floor of the mountain was covered with leaves and then snow. The sun went down a little earlier each night, leaving us in darkness. My bedroom turned cold from the new chill in the air, which came in through the cracks in the walls, and every night I heated up one of Beachard’s cast-off stones in the fire, putting it at the foot of the bed to keep me warm.

  When I went to sleep, the Wood Carver was all I dreamed about. It was the same dream over and over. In it he stood so tall that he blocked out the sun, turning the sky as dark as night. His hair was wild and almost touched the ground, and he would pick me up and hold me over his head so that I was as high as the trees and the clouds and the stars, and then he would spin me around and around. I never saw his face.

  I wanted to get a look at his face. I wanted to watch him and study him just like I’d been studying my own face in the mirror ever since Mama died. Was I marked? Could people look at me and tell that my mama had died and my daddy had just as good as killed her? I figured the Wood Carver, of all people, would understand what it was to lose something precious, like the people you loved most in the world.

  I hadn’t said a word to Johnny Clay about meeting him. It was the first thing I ever wanted to keep completely to myself. So when I decided that I was going up the mountain to spy on the Wood Carver—in the bright light of day—I didn’t tell Johnny Clay that either.

  “Velva Jean?” Mrs. Dennis said one afternoon as Johnny Clay and me were running out the door after school. “Can I see you a moment?”

  I walked back into the school and stood by the door, hoping Mrs. Dennis would figure out that I was in a hurry.

  “How would you like to earn some money?” she said.

  I wondered if Mrs. Dennis could read minds like the man Johnny Clay and I had heard on the radio at Deal’s. The man could predict the weather and tell you what number you were thinking and how many fingers you were holding up without even looking at you. And then I remembered that in my life-dreams paper I had said I was saving up money for Nashville.

  “I can pay you twenty-five cents a week to help me in the mornings before lessons—cleaning erasers, washing slates, collecting chalk. Just help me tidy up a bit and keep things in order. Are you interested?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said. I would put every penny I earned into my Nashville fund.

  I began arriving at school thirty minutes early. I stacked books and wiped down the blackboard and sharpened pencils. Sometimes I stayed late and walked home with Mrs. Dennis. I even helped Dr. Hamp sort and shelve books and keep track of the ones that were loaned out and the ones that came back in. He taught me to repair them and to rebind them. And I always chose a new book to take home with me, something Sweet Fern would approve of because she wanted to know the name of any book I brought into the house. I loved Little Women and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was so beautiful and sad that I wanted to throw it at the wall.

  At the end of each week, Mrs. Dennis gave me a brand-new quarter. On the walk home, I turned it round and round so it caught the light. When I got home, I went straight to my bedroom and hid it away in my hatbox. After four weeks, I had four shiny quarters—one entire dollar saved for Nashville. I figured I was on my way.

  It was one week after I got the idea to spy on the Wood Carver before I was able to get away from Johnny Clay. He was going down to Alluvial with the Gordon boys on a Saturday. When he asked me to come along, I told him I was going to stay behind and work on a song I’d started, since Sweet Fern was visiting the Deals and wouldn’t be around to hear me and to tell me to save my voice for the Lord.

  The place where the Wood Carver lived was at the very top of Devil’s Courthouse, about an hour’s walk from Sleepy Gap, and there was no way to get there but to go through the forest and the gullies and the streams, and to climb up hills, some of them so steep that I had to pull myself up by one tree and then another.

  To get to the top of Devil’s Courthouse, you had to follow a path that wasn’t really a path. For a while, I went along an old Cherokee trail, but when that disappeared I broke through the rhododendron and the laurel, which grew thick and wild even in winter. I crossed the river by stones and then by an old footbridge that someone had built and abandoned long ago. I walked over strawberries and cranberry shrubs and rattleweed and tangles of wandering Jew. The spruce pines grew thicker the higher I climbed. The air became cooler and sweeter.

  I passed the Toomeys’ house, set back in the trees, and, farther up, old Buck Frey’s place. As I reached the very top of the mountain, I walked through long tunnels of rhododendron that hung down over the path. The devil’s cave, the one he shared with Tsul ’Kalu, loomed nearby, dark and craggy. I tried not to look at it, tried not to think of what or who lay inside. I walked away from it, not sure where I was going exactly. I passed a litt
le log cabin with sheep in the yard. I waited, watching, but when I saw Aunt Junie come from the house, bees swarming around her, I kept walking.

  I wasn’t even sure where the Wood Carver lived. I knew he lived at the top of the mountain, in a cave or in treetops or in his wood cabin. I hadn’t thought it through before coming. I just wanted to see him.

  The trees got thicker—dark balsam firs, ash trees—until I came to a clearing. Close up, close in, from all sides, you could see Witch Mountain, Bone Mountain, Blood Mountain, and Fair Mountain. Further on there was Silvermine Bald, Richland Balsam, Waterrock Knob, Wrongful Mountain, Cold Mountain, and, in the far distance, Mount Pisgah, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mount Mitchell, and the Black Mountains. I knew the names of each peak, thanks to my daddy. Since I was a little girl, he had been making me learn them one by one. It looked like you could step down onto one of those other mountaintops and walk your way across them until you ended up in Tennessee or Georgia or South Carolina or beyond.

  When I got to the highest point, the ground flattened out. The mist settled down here, the smoke rolling in and out through the trees. I tiptoed quiet as a mouse across the floor of the mountain and stopped just at the edge of a thicket of laurel bushes that grew in a circle. In the middle of them, within a ring of fir trees, was a small wood cabin, and on the front stoop sat a man with long black hair.

  I hid myself behind a tree and held my breath so he wouldn’t hear me. I huddled there, every now and then taking a gulp of air, and just watched him. What if I saw him using his killing knife and there was blood on it? What if he caught me and used it on me?

  There were those who believed he was the son of Tsul ’Kalu the giant or that he had lived with the bears and taken on their nature, becoming one of them. Others said he had come to Devil’s Courthouse from the city, that he used to be a rich man, and that he’d been educated right through college. Some said he had gone away to war where he had been a hero or, others said, where he had killed his own men, and when he returned home he had lost everything. His wife left him and took their children, and he ran away to the woods. But the story most everyone believed was that he’d killed his entire family, and maybe even some other people, and had come to the mountain to hide.

  Whenever anything on the mountain went missing, people blamed it on the Wood Carver. Whenever the weather turned strange or the crops failed, they said it was because of him and the curse he had brought with him. There were rumors that he hid in the caves of the mountain, that he stole from helpless women and children or orphans, like my brothers and sister and me, and that he walked on all fours when the moon was full.

  Right now he sat on the stoop of the small wood house, whittling a long branch. Every so often, he’d lay down his knife and prop the branch between his knees while he smoothed the wood with his hands. I tried to get a look at his knife, to see if there was blood on it, and I tried to see his hands, but I wasn’t close enough. So instead I stared good and hard at his face.

  He had a full, overgrown beard and wild black hair. He wore an old battered hat and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of dark green work pants. His legs were long and stretched out in front of him, and he was kind of whistling to himself as he worked. He didn’t look at all like you’d expect a murderer to look. He didn’t look marked in the least. He actually had a nice kind of face—almost handsome. I stood and watched him for a long time and then, quiet as I could, I headed back down toward home.

  Whenever I could, I made the long hike up Devil’s Courthouse to spy on the Wood Carver. The laurel bushes that surrounded his cabin were sturdy enough and thick enough, all twined and braided around each other, and I was light enough that I could climb on top of the branches and walk from one to another, never touching the ground. There, I would sit or stand and watch him. He was always on his stoop when I arrived, sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him, carving something. I would watch for an hour or so, and then I would turn around and go home.

  One day I was sitting behind a large stickery shrub, staring at him through the leaves, when he said, very low: “I wish I had someone to talk to.” He never looked up, just kept working, using his killing knife. “It surely would be nice to have some company right now,” he said a little louder.

  I sat there telling myself to run back down the mountain before he could get me. I told myself to just back right up and turn around and go home as fast as I could. I watched to see if he was going to get up and come after me, but he just kept on with his carving.

  Finally, I got up and brushed myself off, and then I walked out from behind the shrub and went over to him. I stood there, feeling terrified and excited and thinking that I had no idea what to say to a murderer because I’d never actually met one face-to-face before.

  “You’re Hoyt’s girl, aren’t you?”

  “Granddaughter.” My voice sounded thin and far away, the way it did sometimes when I was nervous, so soft that people had to lean in close or ask me to speak up. I wondered if he could hear me over my own heartbeat. I wondered if he recognized me from the haunted trail.

  “Zona or Turk or Corrine?”

  I cleared my throat and spoke louder. “Corrine.” It was the first time I’d ever said my mama’s first name out loud to a stranger. I wished I had belt loops to hitch my fingers through, but instead I tried to jut my chin out like Johnny Clay so the Wood Carver would know I wasn’t to be messed with.

  He just nodded and kept on working. I squatted down a few feet away, ready to run if I had to.

  “It’s nice of you to finally come say hello,” he said. “After all the times you’ve been to see me.”

  I didn’t say anything to this. How did he know I’d been spying on him? Johnny Clay and me were expert spies. We used to hide all the time from Sweet Fern and she never knew where to find us.

  “I don’t get much company up here.”

  “Do you want company?” I looked down at the ground and pretended to study my toes.


  I kept my head down but raised my eyes just enough to watch the knife as it cut into the wood. The blade was sharp and fast, but I didn’t see any bloodstains. I looked at his hands, but they seemed clean. Maybe the blood was on his palms.

  “What kind of wood is that?” I asked, and wrapped my arms tight around my knees.

  “Serviceberry. The tree of many names. Sometimes called June-berry, sarvis, shadblow. It’s the first to bloom in spring.”

  I nodded like this wasn’t news to me, like this was something I had known all along. “What are you making?”

  “I don’t know.” He held it out in front of him. “Usually I know before I start.” He waved his hand behind him toward the open door of his house. “But today I’m just seeing what comes out of the wood.” I looked into the house and saw there were shelves along the walls. The shelves were lined with things carved out of wood, but instead of masks and deadly slingshots, I saw birdhouses and toys and dancing men on strings.

  “You made all those things in there?” I said.

  He didn’t even look up. “Every one.”

  I squinted at him, the sun in my eyes. I wondered if he knew about Mama dying and about Daddy coming home after she was already cold and buried. I wondered if he knew my daddy was a murderer, too, that he had killed Mama by going off and not being there to help her and take care of her. I wondered if he knew my daddy didn’t love me enough to stay around and if the Wood Carver would still want to talk to me once he figured it out. I wondered if my marks were showing.

  “It’s all in there, inside,” he said, holding up the piece of wood. I watched his hands, large and blackened, as the knife cut and peeled and sliced. “Carving comes from looking at the wood and seeing what it can become. You see what you can make out of it. You can feel it before it’s even begun.”

  “How’d you learn to do it?” I asked. My legs were beginning to ache, but I didn’t want to sit down.

  “I didn’t,” he
said. “I’ve never had a lesson.”

  “A traveling minister taught my granddaddy how to play fiddle.”

  “Is that true?”

  I nodded. “He was fourteen. Later, after the Cherokee taught him to become a healer, he started making his own fiddles. He carved them out of curing woods because he thought they’d be able to heal people with their music. He makes one a year and gives it away to someone he knows. People try to give him money for them, but he says, ‘You can’t put a price on a man’s soul.’ ”

  “Your granddaddy’s a wise man.” He twirled the piece of wood round as he carved, little curled up shavings falling down on the ground by his feet.

  “So if you never had a lesson, how’d you learn?” I said. I tried shifting my weight from one foot to the other to stop the ache.

  “I just tried it one day and I discovered that I knew how to do it, like it was in me all the time.”

  “Mama always said that singing was like praying twice,” I said without meaning to. I was thinking about how singing was like that for me, how ever since I could remember I’d been singing and making up songs in my head and planning my outfit for the Grand Ole Opry—a gold skirt and jacket with red trim and rhinestones, and a matching cowboy hat. I knew where Nashville was on Beachard’s map of the world, and that it was almost three hundred miles from Sleepy Gap. I had already saved up a dollar and seventy-five cents to help get me there one day, money I’d earned by working for Mrs. Dennis and her husband.

  The Wood Carver had stopped carving. He was rubbing at the piece of wood. I pointed to a tree that stood directly in front of the porch. Its trunk was dark and straight; its arms spread wide toward the sky. It was the only one like itself in the middle of all those firs and ashes. “What kind of tree is that?”

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