Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  By the count of eighty-five, he’d come back out, face white, hair sticking straight up, and he was running. He said, “Go, Velva Jean!” We’d run all the way home and didn’t stop till we were on Mama’s porch. When we got there, we lay about trying to catch our breath, and then I said, “What in the Sam Hill did you see?”

  He said, “The bones of a dead man. At least one, maybe more. There were bones everywhere, and not animal ones. They were human. I could tell.”

  “How could you tell?”

  “Because of the skull.”

  I’d never forgot this, and now as I climbed up the face of the rock, I had to will myself not to faint. I heard my brother’s voice in my head: “We have to be men about this, Velva Jean,” and I decided that if I could fly a plane, I could look inside a giant’s cave.

  As I climbed—careful where I stepped, putting one foot in front of the other just so—I held on to the rock, which was cold as ice even in the sun. When I got to the ledge, I pulled myself up and rolled to the entrance, suddenly scared to death of heights. Don’t look down, I told myself. Don’t look over the edge.

  I stood up and brushed myself off and crept forward, quiet as a spy, as sly as Constance Kurridge, my favorite spy of all time. The front of the cave was light from the sun spilling in, but the deeper I went in, the darker it got. I stopped just a couple of feet inside because there, lying in a circle a few feet deeper into the cave, was a pile of bones.

  I stood there trying to move my feet, but they might as well have been nailed to the ground. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back. After what seemed like three hours, I somehow made them work, and I crept closer to the bones because I couldn’t help myself, even though I was telling myself to go back the way I’d come. The cave was dank and damp and smelled as stale as old cabbage, as sour as mayapple leaves. I breathed through my mouth as I tiptoed forward, trying not to smell anything, careful not to make a sound. I wished Johnny Clay were there to see me.

  When I was only a few inches from the bones, I stopped. It was darker there and the air was heavier. I let my eyes adjust and then I leaned in. They weren’t bones at all. They were canes and flutes and dancing men, all carved out of wood. I bent down and reached, straining with my fingertips. I picked up the thing closest to me, and it was a wooden man with his mouth open, holding a book. I turned it to the light and ran my fingers over it. The wood was smooth and cool to the touch. I inched forward, toward the opening of the cave, toward the light, and held it up. And that’s when I saw that it looked like Harley Bright.

  I threw the carving back into the pile and looked all around me. Was the Wood Carver here now? Was he watching me? Why was I suddenly afraid of him? He was, after all, my friend, a man who’d been nothing but wronged by the people who knew him. But there was a chill working over me and through me, growing heavier and heavier. So heavy that when I said, “Hello? Are you there?” it came out a whisper.

  I stood up and tried again. “Are you there?” It was louder this time.

  I waited.


  I waited again.


  I said, “I don’t know if you’re here, but I came to see you. I’m home from Nashville. I’m sure you know about the war. I been trying to find you. I can fly planes now. I’m a pilot. I’m going to be a pilot for the military. For the WFTD.”

  I said this louder than I needed to because I wanted the devil to hear me—to hear how brave I was—just in case he was there and wanting to pass judgment.

  “If you are here, I don’t know why you don’t tell me so. You know I would never ever do you harm.”

  Nothing again.

  I said, “I don’t know if I’m going back to Nashville ever, but I’m still singing. And I’ll go back someday. But right now I’m flying. Can you believe that? Johnny Clay helped me learn. He came out to Nashville to see me and we took lessons.”

  There was only the deep silence of the cave.

  “Well. I’m going back down, then. I wish I could see you. I just wanted to know that you’re okay, and to tell you thank you for brace roots and all the other things you taught me. Even when I’m up in the air, I guess it’s good to know I have them.” And then I turned and walked back to the mouth of the cave, and when I stepped outside on the ledge I forgot myself and looked down and there was the other side of the valley—the side that looked toward Pinhook Gap, where a woman named May Able lived—spread out below, so far down you couldn’t see the bottom. And there were the mountains spread out in front of me, so many that you couldn’t see the end of them.

  This time, on my way back down the mountain, I walked by Harley’s house—my old house. I was careful to stay out of sight in case he was home. I hid behind a tree, just like when Johnny Clay and me came over to get the moonshine for Mama and I first laid eyes on Harley Bright, back when I was ten years old.

  From the outside the house looked just the same as it always had—a white two-story, with bright-blue trim, a slanting roof, and a wide porch that wrapped around the front and one side. The house sat in a clearing, surrounded by a barn, a chicken house, a springhouse, a cornfield, and the meadow where I’d taught myself to drive. Circling around the house was a stream, which I knew fed into a river, which fed into the ocean, which was something I made myself think about back when I was living there, all hemmed in, caged up, trapped. I thought now that Harley’s house might as well be Butcher Gap Prison, surrounded by barbed wire and walls without windows and security towers with armed guards ready to shoot you if you tried to run away. Even after leaving, even just standing outside it, that house made me feel so small that I had to look down at my feet to see if I was still my normal size.

  I was turning away when the front door opened. I expected to see Levi, Harley’s daddy, but instead Harley himself walked out onto the porch. He was in his shirtsleeves and he was talking to someone. Then Pernilla Swan came blinking out, just like a mole, with her pale-strawberry hair and her eyes no bigger than a pig’s eyes. She took Harley’s hand and then dropped it and they talked a moment more. And then she set off down the stairs, stepping as gingerly as an old lady. She turned and waved at Harley and walked off toward home. He stood there watching her go, and then he looked around him, toward the meadow, toward the cornfield, and finally toward the woods where I was hiding. I held my breath, but he went inside and shut the door.

  I’d never in my life seen Pernilla Swan without her mama nearby. What was she doing with Harley Bright? And more than that, what was he doing with her?

  ~ 1943 ~

  Off we go into the wild blue yonder . . .

  —“Wild Blue Yonder”

  (a.k.a. “The U.S. Air Force”)

  January 9, 1943

  Dear Mary Lou,

  Nashville is boring without you. I think I might marry the next guy that asks, just for something to do.

  You’d better not be falling in love with that old husband of yours. If you write to me and tell me you’ve run off with him again or that you’re pregnant with his babies, I will come to North Carolina myself and give you hell.

  The name of my lawyer friend, the one who got me my divorce, is Lucius M. Powell, but everyone calls him Lucky. His address is: 8515 Washington Street, Boston, Massachusetts. I want you to write to him as soon as you’re done reading this and get that divorce. If you don’t have the money for it, I’ll send you some myself.

  Don’t you dare stay there.

  Miss you like crazy.



  P.S. I know you’re in the army now, but Nori and Crow say you always have a home at the Lovelorn Café.


  On the evening of January 16, at six o’clock exactly, Harley picked me up in the DeSoto. I wore the navy dress I’d bought in Nashville, the one with the skirt that twirled. Harley wore his Barathea white suit with a red handkerchief in the breast pocket.

  I said, “Where are we going?”

  Harley said, ?
??It’s a surprise.”

  This made me think “oh no,” because you never knew if surprises were going to be good or not.

  We got into the car and started down the mountain, through Alluvial, down the old cattle road, and through Hamlet’s Mill toward Sylva. I said again, “Where are we going?” I suddenly had a scared feeling like, what if Harley was going to kidnap me?

  He said, “Just you wait and see.”

  The Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel looked just as I remembered it, back when I was sixteen years old and Harley and I went there for our honeymoon. It was a three-story Victorian inn built at the highest railroad depot this side of the Rockies. It sat thirty-five hundred feet above a valley, pressed against the mountain, on twenty-three acres. Harley and me stood on the wide front porch and looked out over that valley and I remembered the woman who lived down there in one of the little houses in the holler across the train tracks. When we were there before, there’d been chickens running in the yard, and she had stood out there hanging her wash on the line. There was still wash hanging outside, but I didn’t see any sign of her.

  It was a cold night, clean and clear, and there was a couple walking on the porch hand in hand. I looked at them and wondered if they were as happy as they seemed or if maybe one of them didn’t like the other all the time and wanted to get in a truck and drive away and never look back.

  Harley took my hand and for five seconds I held it, looking down and thinking how funny it was that our hands still fit but didn’t fit. Then I took my hand away and tucked it in my pocket.

  In the restaurant the waiters wore bow ties and aprons and had neat mustaches that made me think of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. These days there were long lines at the grocery down in Hamlet’s Mill and no meat, just something called utility-grade beef, which looked like something you wouldn’t feed a possum. But here at the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel, you could still get lime-pepper steak. Harley said this was because they butchered it themselves.

  We ate steak and drank sweet tea, and Harley asked me polite questions about Nashville and my singing, though you could tell maybe he didn’t want to hear everything but felt he should ask.

  Then he told me all about the Little White Church and his sermons. He said, “The Little White Church is mostly old folks and women now, with so many of the men gone, but I’m needed more than ever. I was mad as hell about this 4-F thing, Velva Jean. You know that. But I think I’m doing good by being here. I’m maybe even doing more. I think it’s where I need to be.”

  I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t read a single one of his letters and because of that this was the first I was hearing about him being 4-F and unable to serve. I thought of all those unopened envelopes stuffed inside my suitcase. I said, “You’ve done a good thing with that church, Harley.”

  He said, “Thank you.”

  There was too much we weren’t saying, starting with the fact that I’d left him without a word almost exactly a year ago.

  I said, “How’s your daddy?”

  He laughed. “Up there every day working on a new still. I think he’s got a couple of ’em now.”

  He looked younger when he laughed, with his face loosened up. I said, “I can’t believe you haven’t shut them down.”

  He said, “It keeps him happy. I want him happy. He’s all I got now.”

  And there it was. I tried to think of something to say. Somewhere far away in my mind I was watching the two of us like I was sitting across the room or up at the bar. I saw a handsome man with a lot of charm, talking and talking, and a pretty girl sitting back and letting him, just like I was in the congregation at the Little White Church and he was preaching a sermon. I was married to this man and he was as good as a stranger. He’d seen me without my clothes on, and now here we sat like people meeting in church or at Deal’s for the first time.

  Finally I asked him if he knew that the top orchestras in the country were made up of women. I said, “Houston has twenty-six women players and a woman concertmaster.” I was trying to learn about Texas.

  He said, “Is that so?” I couldn’t tell whether he was impressed or just being polite.

  I hoped he couldn’t remember seeing me naked. I hoped he wasn’t picturing it right then. I said, “Harvard Medical School is finally letting in women.” Even as I was saying these things I didn’t know why I was saying them. Maybe I was testing him to see if he’d changed at all, if maybe he would actually care about something like that.

  I said, “There’s a research lab in Pittsburgh where this girl chemist just a year older than me helped develop a plastic glue strong enough to support the weight of a two-hundred-ton locomotive.” As far as I was concerned, people didn’t look their best naked. They looked better with clothes on—even Harley, who had muscles in his arms and shoulders and long, strong legs.

  He said, “What are you trying to say, Velva Jean?” There was an edge to his voice for the first time.

  I said, “I just think it’s interesting how this world is changing.” Why on earth was I thinking about Harley’s legs? Now that I had the image of his arms and muscles in my mind, I couldn’t seem to get it out.

  “Look, Velva Jean. After you left me I had some time to think, and you know what I thought? You and me, we been through it, the good and the bad. I knew you back before your mama died and your daddy run off. I knew you when you was a girl. I knew you when you ran away from Sweet Fern and I knew you when you turned fifteen and then sixteen and I made you my wife. You saw me through my mama’s death and through the train wreck, when I nearly died myself. You got me off the couch again and got me preaching and got me into believing in something other than myself. You and me, we got a history. I figure all that’s got to count for something.”

  It did count, but he’d also left out mean Harley, wicked Harley, cold Harley, hard-to-reach Harley, holier-than-thou Harley, and the Harley that rounded up people I knew and loved and chased them off the mountain.

  I said, “I can’t be the person you need me to be anymore. I think you need someone who’ll go to the church meetings and cook your supper and listen to your sermons and look after Levi, and who’ll like doing those things and never want a single thing more.” Someone like Pernilla Swan. I thought about her then, with her pale-strawberry hair and her tiny pig’s eyes without lashes, but I didn’t say a word or ask him what she’d been doing up at the house.

  “I don’t want anyone else, Velva Jean. You’re my dream girl.”

  “That’s just the thing. I’m not a dream girl. I’m a real one.”

  Harley laughed at this. “You’re a dream girl but you don’t realize it, honey. You’re about the dreamiest girl there is.”

  I thought: You want a dream girl, but I’m not one of those. I’m real, just like I told you. I wish you’d listen. I said, “You know, I learned to fly when I was in Nashville.”

  He said, “Really?”

  I waited, but there wasn’t anything more, and then he seemed to know he was supposed to say more, so he said, “First driving and now flying. Good for you, honey.”

  I said, “I have my pilot’s license. They’re training women to fly and ferry planes for the war.”

  Harley laughed. He said, “What on earth for?”

  I felt my hackles rising. I thought: So there you are. You’ve been in there all along. I said, “Because they need pilots, especially with so many men overseas. And I’ve taught myself everything there is to know about flying. My teacher, Duke Norris, said I was a natural. You’ve heard of General Hap Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces?”

  He said, “Yes.” His voice was testy.

  I said, “He helped create the program with a woman named Jacqueline Cochran, the most famous female pilot in history, even more famous than Amelia Earhart. It’s called the WFTD. The Women’s Flying Training Detachment.”

  He threw his napkin down and sat back. He stared off at the counter and the bar stools. A waiter came rushing up, thinking Harley was looking for him. He
said, “Sir?” Harley kept on staring past him, off into space.

  I said, “We’re fine, thank you.” The waiter looked at Harley to make sure, and that made me mad because waiters never listened to women, no matter what. Finally Harley nodded at the waiter without looking at him, and the waiter walked away.

  Harley brought his eyes back to my face slow as could be. It took about a hundred years. He said, “Does this have to do with me being 4-F? The fact that they’re not letting me fight? You’re not trying to show me up by joining when you know I can’t?”

  “Of course not.” I thought, I didn’t even know you were 4-F till now.

  He nodded, his eyes wandering off to the right of him. After a long moment, he said, “Texas? Well now, I never thought of Texas.” He was charming Harley again. “I could go with you. We could get us a house there.”

  I said, “I’m going to Texas by myself.”

  Harley looked like he’d been slapped. We sat there. I thought: There is no going back, even if you wanted to. There is only going forward from here on out. Harley was still in Devil’s Kitchen and I was living out there—way out there—in the great big world, a bigger world than he could even dream up. And just like that, I was finished being Harley Bright’s wife, Levi’s daughter-in-law, housewife, church wife, Velva Jean Bright of Devil’s Kitchen. I was going back to living out there, but not because Mama told me to—because it was the only place I could live in this world.

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