Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  “No, but I got a message from him.”

  I said, “What kind of message?” I tried to picture the Wood Carver writing a note or a letter.

  He leaned down and picked up the cane. “Someone left it outside my fiddle studio.” He turned it this way and that. “You almost can’t tell it was in a fire. He smoothed that wood down pretty good, working out the charred part, but somehow he didn’t lose too much of the carving.” He held the cane out so I could see it better. It shone in the moonlight. It was the cane the Wood Carver had made him, the one that almost burned in the fire that Harley started, the one that drove the Wood Carver away.

  I stared out toward the trees, shining with white, up toward Devil’s Courthouse, even though I couldn’t see the peak of it from there. They used to say the Wood Carver took on animal form at night, that he walked on all fours and roamed the woods, snatching babies from their cribs. I wondered where he was right then and if I’d be able to see him before I left again.

  We stayed up till two in the morning, turning in one by one till finally it was just Granny and Ruby Poole and me. After they went to sleep, I went over to Mama’s, to my old room, and slept in one of the twin beds that used to belong to Johnny Clay and me. I lay there, feeling the ghosts. Ghosts of myself as a little girl, ghosts of Mama, Daddy, my brothers and sister. Across the hall was the room where my mama died. The air was thick with haints.

  I would have to find Harley eventually. Whatever I did, I knew I had to face him head-on and see him before he heard I was back. My stomach turned over at the thought. This was one of those things that couldn’t be helped but that you wished you could get out of—like scalding the hog or living with Sweet Fern or telling your mama good-bye forever.


  On December 26, Daddy Hoyt and Granny and Ruby Poole and me walked down the hill to Deal’s. It was a beautiful morning, blue and bright. The tree limbs shone with ice and the snow glittered where the sun hit it. I didn’t think I’d ever seen such clean snow—it made the earth seem new, like every step we made was the first. I broke an icicle from a tree and sucked it like a popsicle, just like Johnny Clay and me used to do when Sweet Fern wasn’t watching.

  Alluvial was quiet. The snow painted everything white so you couldn’t see the gold dust that was underneath. The Alluvial Hotel sat empty, its porch covered in snow, icicles hanging from the eaves and railing. I wondered where Lucinda Sink was at this moment. Ruby Poole said she’d gotten on the train with her suitcase one day about three weeks before and no one had seen her since.

  The door to Deal’s was closed, but it swung open when Granny pushed it. Inside there was greenery and a giant wreath over the door and another on the opposite wall. A tree decorated with pinecones and cherries and strung popcorn and a lopsided star on top stood in one corner. The potbellied stove was lit, and a couple of old men sat around warming their hands and drinking out of mugs. They stopped talking long enough to look up. When they saw me, one of them shouted, “Look what the cat drug home!”

  There were footsteps then, and Mr. Deal came down the stairs from the apartment above. He said to us, “He’ll be down in a second.” He called up the stairs, “Jessup Deal!”

  A voice yelled back: “Coming!”

  We were here to tell Jessup good-bye. He was headed to the army base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training.

  From a ways off, we heard the train whistle. Mr. Deal hollered, “Jessup!”

  I looked at this man who was almost like a daddy to me after my own daddy went away. He was kind and strong and so much had happened to him—burying his wife, burying his middle son. And now he had two sons on their way to war.

  There was a clattering of footsteps as Jessup came down too fast with his bag over his shoulder. He missed the last step and went sprawling and then sat laughing his head off. He saw me and said, “Well, holy shit. Looky here.”

  I thought that Jessup was even better looking than the last time I’d seen him. His black hair fell over his eyes—one green and one blue—and he looked like a man now and not a boy. He and I were the exact same age.

  He jumped to his feet and picked up the bag and then gave me a hug. He said, “What do you think? I’m off to fight this war.” Then he shook Daddy Hoyt’s hand and hugged Granny and Ruby Poole. He said, “Where’s that train?”

  We could hear it rattling up outside. Mr. Deal stood by the door, with a face so straight you couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He said, “Best get a move on, boy.” He pushed the door open and held it, and Jessup marched out. The sun hit his hair so that it shone blue-black, and there was something so brave and young about him at that moment that I thought, Dear Jesus, keep him safe.

  Sweet Fern and the children came out of their house just as we all walked out of Deal’s. The train pulled up, the smoke from the engine climbing out in a funnel, just like a tornado cloud, winding up into the blue sky. There was the grinding of brakes—like the high-pitched cry of a panther—and the train slowed to a stop.

  The conductors appeared, one lighting a cigarette, the other rubbing his hands together and blowing on them. He hopped up and down, right in place, and then hugged his arms to himself like he wasn’t used to the cold. And then boys in uniform started pouring out of the train like ants on a picnic, smoking, laughing, going on into Deal’s. Some of them winked at Sweet Fern and Ruby Poole and me as they walked by.

  Jessup turned and grinned at us. I knew him well enough to know he was putting on a show, just like Johnny Clay would have done. He was trying to seem brave and fearless, like he wasn’t going anyplace more than just over to Waynesville or Hamlet’s Mill. He said, “Y’all take care.” He held out his hand to his daddy, and Mr. Deal shook it hard. They both wore their best faces, the kind you couldn’t see through.

  Then Jessup saluted the rest of us and said, “See you when this war is done.” And he swung up into the train and disappeared.

  Another one gone, I thought. I heard the Carter Family in my head:I went back home, my home was lonesome.

  Missed my mother, she was gone.

  All of my brothers, sisters crying.

  What a home so sad and lone . . .

  Sweet Fern linked her arm through Mr. Deal’s, and there was something about that one little gesture that made me get a hard-swallowing homesick feeling in my throat. We stood there a minute longer, waving and watching, even though we couldn’t see Jessup anymore. I wondered why he hadn’t stayed out there with us till the last minute. The conductors were still smoking. The soldiers were still milling about. I figured Jessup went on in because he hated good-byes as much as any of us, and maybe if he’d hung around we would have seen just how hard it was for him to leave.

  One of the conductors shouted to the other one, “It’s a goddamn icebox up here in the mountains.”

  The other one threw his cigarette onto the ground and kicked snow over it. He said, “Next time I’m working a train down in Mexico.”

  The soldiers came back outside, drinking Coca-Colas, chewing gum. They started getting back on the train.

  The first conductor climbed up after them, and after the last soldier went in the second conductor started to follow. Then I heard him say, “Sorry. Go on ahead, then.” He backed down the stairs till he was outside on the ground, and two legs came into view. It was a tall man in a coat the color of sand and a hat to match.

  He said, “Thank you,” in a deep drawl of a voice that made my heart stop.

  Suddenly there was Harley Bright. I stood frozen to the spot just like I was caught in a blizzard and I was a balsam fir covered in ice. My mind said: Run, Velva Jean. Run like hell, girl. But my feet weren’t working. Everyone was staring at me, staring at Harley, waiting to see what would happen.

  I hadn’t seen Harley since I’d been back. I hadn’t had the nerve yet to go up to Devil’s Kitchen or the Little White Church.

  Harley started toward us, away from the train, and I knew he hadn’t seen me yet but it was only a matter of
seconds. Before I could think anymore about what I might do or say, he looked up and saw me. He stopped walking.

  There was a grinding sound of metal on metal, and the train started to pull away, gathering up speed like a giant man trying to break into a jog. Everyone waved one last time, except for me.

  I thought that this was exactly what it was like when the panther cat had chased me. I felt rooted, waiting to see when it would pounce, when it would get me. Harley was rooted too. I didn’t know who would move first.

  Then he started toward me.

  You’re going to be a pilot in the WFTD, I told myself.

  Harley Bright stopped in front of me with a smile so blinding I could barely see. He said, “Velva Jean.”

  I said, “Harley Bright.”

  I thought: You’re going to fly planes for the war.

  Harley said, “Is that any way to greet your husband?”

  Sweet Fern sucked in her breath. I heard Mr. Deal say, “It sure is cold out here, folks. Why don’t we go inside where it’s warm.”

  Harley said to him, “I just spoke to Jessup, sir. I told him I’d be sure to ask Jesus to watch out for him.”

  Mr. Deal’s face didn’t move but something passed behind his eyes, and I wondered if he was remembering Harley preaching here in Alluvial against the outlanders before he rounded them up and sent them out of the valley. Mr. Deal said, “Thank you, Harley.” I noticed he didn’t call him “Reverend.” Harley seemed to notice it too, because he gave Mr. Deal a tight smile, strained at the corners.

  Sweet Fern started pushing the children toward Deal’s. She said, “What a good idea to go inside. It certainly is cold out here.” But she gave Harley a mean look like he was a bug she wanted to kill. Then they all shuffled inside so that Harley and I were alone.

  I said “Harley Bright” again because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I wished I wasn’t outside, standing in the freezing cold of December, my nose red as a turnip and my brain numb from winter.

  Harley looked good but he also looked smaller somehow. Older. Under the hat there was a little gray in his hair, flecked here and there. I wondered where he’d been that he was riding the train, not as a fireman in a freight car, but as a passenger on a passenger train. Was he preaching in other towns again? Was he riding the circuit? It made me mad to think so, after how he’d made us stay, stuck and still, in Devil’s Kitchen for so long after his accident, after he lost his nerve. Then I realized I was a fine one to think that, taking myself off to Tennessee.

  He said, “Why didn’t you write me you were coming, Velva Jean?”

  My heart was slowing down, starting to beat normal again. I thought about the way I must look. My hair was wet from the cold and the damp. I was wearing Mama’s old winter coat, with the threads hanging off it and one button missing. Harley was still handsome. I guessed he always would be. I’d forgot how he could make me feel raggedy and threadbare sometimes, even after I’d been out in the great, big world.

  He said, “That’s some greeting, especially when I haven’t seen or heard from you in a year.” He opened his arms to me, and I could feel everyone watching from inside. I stood my ground for almost a minute, still frozen, still rooted, and his arms just sat there out in space, his smile getting tighter and tighter. At the moment he was about to lose it completely, I stepped forward and let him hug me. He said, “I’m glad you came back.”

  I said, “I’m only back for a few weeks. I’m not here to stay.” But at the same time I said it, I was also thinking how warm he was. I was breathing him in, and he smelled new and fresh and also familiar, the exact same way I remembered him. He smelled like home.

  “I’d like to take you to supper,” he said. “We’ll go to Hamlet’s Mill. We’ll go to Waynesville if you want. I’ll take you back to the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel for lime-pepper steak.” This was where we stayed on our honeymoon, and the lime-pepper steak was my favorite meal. I’d eaten it every night.

  My mind was racing. I didn’t want to stand there talking to him or ever have supper with him. I wanted to run back up to Mama’s and get in that yellow truck and head straight for Nashville or anywhere else but here.

  He said, “You staying at your mama’s?”


  “I’ll come up there and get you. Now, I need to go on inside and get something ’fore I go back on up to the church.” He tipped his hat to me, just like we were in a movie, and then he went on into Deal’s.

  I stood there wondering if Harley was trying to bait me, if he was playing coy just like Hunter Firth did sometimes when he was tracking a coon, pretending to ignore it so that it got comfortable and then just when it got too comfortable, chasing it down and catching it by the throat.

  Suddenly I started to run back up the hill to Mama’s. As I ran I told myself: You can’t be rooted, Velva Jean. You can’t be rooted.

  I had moved far past Harley, but I was worried that somehow he might still have a hold on me, just like he always had. I was worried he would somehow make me forget the WFTD and my flying and all I’d gone through to get here, and convince me to come back home with him, up to Devil’s Kitchen, to clean his house and cook his meals and buy the sugar and look after him and his daddy.


  I was up and out of the house early the next day. It was a cold, bright morning, the sun hitting the snow and blinding me with all that white. My breath turned the air to mist, and I ran down the hill blowing imaginary smoke rings, just like Johnny Clay and me used to do. Not too far away, I could hear the train coming. The whistle was still the loneliest sound on earth, especially in winter when everything was so dead and silent and we were all closed off from the rest of the world. Hunter Firth started to follow me down the hill, but I shooed him back toward home. I said, “Go on, boy. Go on.” I was afraid he’d start barking and give me away.

  When I got to Alluvial, the train was stopped outside Deal’s. There was the usual crowd of men hanging around outside to see who got off and who got on, and it struck me that this hadn’t changed even with so many of our boys gone and the whole world at war.

  I climbed up Devil’s Courthouse, winding my way up through Devil’s Kitchen. I looped around through the kudzu forest so I wouldn’t have to see Harley’s house. I pushed my way through the bramble and the briars and the tree limbs until I was near the top, up where the Freys and Aunt Junie, the witch-healer, used to live before the Scenic came through their land and the government made them leave.

  I climbed to the highest point, up near where the giant named Tsul’Kalu was supposed to live in the cave he shared with the devil. Here the ground flattened out and the smoke rolled across the earth and through the trees. The snow was deeper the higher I went, and I waded through it up to my shins, my knees, my thighs, until I saw a ring of fir trees, turned white, and, just past, a thicket of laurel bushes frozen in ice. In the middle of the thicket was a small wood cabin turned black in places because of fire.

  I was too big and heavy now to stand in a laurel bush like I did when I was ten years old and spying on the Wood Carver. I was too old for spying. I walked right up to the cabin, past where I knew the black circle of earth was, underneath the snow, where Harley and the others had started the fire, burning all the Wood Carver’s things. I walked up onto the stoop and knocked on the door. When I knocked, it swung open with a creak and there was nothing inside but some old carvings up on the shelves and snow that had blown across the floor. I said hello, even though the cabin was only one room and it was clear that no one was there, that no one had been there for a long time.

  I wanted to look closer at the carvings—the dancing men and birdhouses and canes—but somehow it felt like trespassing. I stood there for another minute and then I turned away and shut the door behind me.

  Instead of heading back to Fair Mountain, I decided to visit the cave at the very top of Devil’s Courthouse—this was where the devil himself sat in judgment on people who were cowardly or wicked. A
s I walked I made a list of all the things I knew or thought I knew about the Wood Carver:His name was Henry Able.

  He was a carver of wood.

  He came from Spruce Pine.

  He’d worked in the mines there.

  He was married to a girl named May.

  One of the men who worked with him at the mines—a man named McAllister—tried to seduce May and she rejected him.

  McAllister tried to kill Henry Able, but Henry Able fought him off with a knife and hit an artery, which caused McAllister to bleed to death.

  May lived down near Pinhook Gap, just over the ridge from Devil’s Kitchen.

  The Wood Carver knew all about which trees made the best carvings, about brace roots, and about nature not following straight lines.

  He was one of the wisest people I’d ever met.

  There were other things too: he was so tall he nearly blacked out the sun; he had eyes the color of midnight, a deep, dark shade of blue; he walked with a limp; he wore a wedding ring that was all nicked up; he had a single special carving knife he used to shape the wood.

  In the end, I thought it really wasn’t very much.

  When I got to the giant’s cave, I stood and looked at that long, paved road that wound on top of the mountain. My daddy had been the first to tell me about the Scenic, even though I didn’t believe him: “I walked across the tops of the mountains, with a man who’s building a road. He’s building it right across the mountains, right across the tops of them. That road is going to reach from Virginia all the way down here, right down through these mountains we live in. It’s going to be the greatest scenic road in the world. A road of unlimited horizons.”

  I walked through the tunnel that cut through the heart of Devil’s Courthouse, toward the other end where I could see the sunlight, and when I came out into the air and the sun I grabbed hold of the black-brown rock and pulled myself up. There was an entrance to the cave on this side that was easier to reach than the main one. Johnny Clay had shown it to me once, back when he was thirteen and I was eleven and we were on a wicked path. He’d dared me to climb up and go inside the cave, but I’d been too chicken. In the end I’d watched him as he scaled the rock like a monkey and then disappeared inside. I’d held my breath and counted to ten and then twenty and then fifty, praying that the giant wouldn’t eat him and that the devil wouldn’t take his soul.

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