So this one goes out to Kay Murphy. And to Michael Kelly. And to all of you who’ve gone through the laborious (and only mildly effective) I’m-no-spambot test in order to comment here or send me messages through my website or Facebook page.
Most especially, though, this round is for Nathan Ballingrud, a very fine writer hisownself (if you want to get well and truly upset, check out his almost unbearable–in a good way–short story, “The Monsters of Heaven”). Nathan was generous enough to link to my previous Bunk excerpt on his own blog (ballingrud.blogspot.com, and well worth a visit), and lured a lot of new brave and curious readers to the site. Nice one, Nathan.
Here, then, is a little more novel I’m putting where my mouth is. As I’ve noted in other posts, this book is full of stories. This is just one. It’s from the middle of the book, and to try to sum up everything would be pointless. And besides, I want you curious. Hungry for more. Annoyed enough that you don’t have more that you’ll make some noise, steer other readers here, post the link on webboards and your blogs and in e-mails, and thereby generate enough insect hum to convince the publishing houses still neither rejecting nor buying, just gnashing teeth and waffling, that maybe they really better get on this…
All you need to know, then, is that your narrator is Paul Dent. He’s young, inexperienced, a talented (and, in some ways, fraudulent) recruit to the Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression. His assigned task is to capture the essence of the North Carolina mountain town of Trampleton for the series of motor-tour travel books the Project has put its writers to work in creating.
It’s the fourth of July. And almost too late, Paul has remembered that months before, on the train into town, he met Bryant Cutter, a crippled veteran of the First World War, who told him that if he really wanted a story, he should come to somewhere called the Screwpine Mill at midnight on Independence Day…
Fourth of July. You want a real story?
It had to be close to midnight already. As I raced up the hill into the larger, darker woods, the hum of cicadas swelled. My lungs heaved. Vomit catapulted into the back of my throat but didn’t spill out. I kept running. Despite months of inquiring, I still only had the vaguest notion of where I was going. My best advice had come from a guy who’d literally dragged me by the sleeve into the shadows outside Riley’s General Store.
“You’re the guy who wants to find Screwpine?” he said. He was wearing brown, checked knickerboxers, a bow-tie, and a beanie. In my notes, I named him Orville.
If I paid close enough attention, according to Orville, halfway up the Back I’d find an old wagon road branching off into the spruce woods. Follow the wagon road into the pines, and eventually I’d come to a fork. Bear left and stay on the trail, and I’d find Screwpine.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” he assured me.
I found the wagon road, alright, and I followed it deep into the gloom beneath the tightly bunched pines. Long, prickly vines and weeds had overrun the entire forest floor. I came to several places that might have been forks, bore left at each of them, but I never knew what I was looking for until I suddenly came across Cutter himself, waiting in an ankle-deep tangle of weeds, peg-leg planted in the dirt like the rooted stem of some petal-less flower. His eyes looked even redder than they had during the train trip we’d shared. Despite the heat, he was wearing the same scruffy suit coat. He still looked like a hobo.
“There you are, Dent. I thought you weren’t going to show,” he said. “Thought maybe I was wrong about you.”
As soon as I stopped moving, my lungs seized. I doubled over, unable to suck down any air. The sensation lasted long enough to send firefly-sparks shooting across my vision and panic coiling up my throat.
“You…” I started, breathing heavily. “You could have given me a little more to go on.”
“You’re here, aren’t you? I gave you more than most around these parts, I bet.”
He kicked his peg-leg high to avoid entangling it in the ground cover and left the path. I marveled at his agility, then remembered that he wasn’t an old man. By the time we’d gone fifty feet, I could no longer distinguish where the trail had been when I looked behind me. The pines closed around us, their needles royal blue in the absence of moonlight. Their sweet-sharp smell pricked my nostrils.
“Is there really such a thing as a screwpine?” I asked.
“Depends who you ask,” he grunted while gliding over roots and weeds. Not once did he so much as stumble.
Finally, we came to the top of a steep hill, and I realized it was true: I would have known the place as soon as I saw it. Assuming I’d found it, that is. But nothing Cutter or Orville or anyone else had said would have brought me anywhere near this spot.
Right on the summit sat a single, sawed-through tree stump so thick that my arms wouldn’t have reached halfway around it. Hunched on the stump was an exquisitely carved owl roughly two feet tall, its head neatly tucked into folded wings. In the near-dark, I couldn’t tell whether the thing was painted, but it was darker even than the pine shadows. Maybe that’s what gave it its idol-like aura.
“Who did this?” I asked after a long time.
“They did. I mean, I assume they did. I never asked, and I never heard anyone say.”
“The coloreds, of course. What do you think we’re doing here?” Then he
shivered, or maybe just shook himself.
I couldn’t decide whether it was the sculpture itself or Cutter’s attitude that was making me so uneasy.
“Okay. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know, Dent. National symbol? Screwpine mascot? This here’s just the beginning of the story.”
Pushing through the pine branches to the right of the stump, Cutter dropped out of sight down the other side of the hill. I moved to the edge of the slope. The gully was deep, its treelessness disconcerting given the density of the woods around it. If there’d been starlight, it would have blazed unobstructed all the way to the ground, which glowed an almost welcoming, grassy green. Instead, only a fingernail moon had scratched through the cloud-cover, offering a single ray of light like a lantern shone down a well. The slope was covered in vines and pine needles, so that my feet slipped and scrabbled with each new step. Cutter waited at the bottom, looking up only when I dislodged a particularly audible stream of dirt. At the far end of the clearing I saw some kind of building with a peaked roof and a tall, square door-space that made it resemble a barn. A smaller, flat-roofed structure had been hitched to the back of it like a caboose.
I took my first step across the flat grass, and my shoes struck metal. Glinting dully out of the spectral green like a half-exposed fossil was a railroad track.
“Hey,” I said. “What line was this?”
Looking up, I was startled to find Cutter with his head in his hands. I moved toward him, and he lifted his gaze. “You bring a notebook?”
“I…I usually just listen. And write later.” I faltered under his glare. The woods remained silent.
“Then listen carefully.” Scowling, he hopped away down the track toward the giant, looming shadows.
Ten steps away, I realized that it wasn’t a barn. Through the gaping space where tall doors must have been, I could discern the skeletal shapes of sawhorses, giant metal bins, columns of black iron, and the dulled face of a circular saw-blade propped on a pile of dust and ash like a tousled head on a pillow. The walls had flaked to virtually nothing. Not a single structure or workbench remained intact. Some sort of rusted-through tractor was connected by filthy industrial cables to a pulley somewhere inside the smaller building. All the walls I could see were blistered and blackened; the one nearest me had tilted away from the sagging roof without completely collapsing.
“Must have been some fire,” I said.
“The wind ought to have scattered the whole works by now. Don’t you think?”
He was right. If I leaned on the doorframe, I could probably knock over the entire place.
“You’d think tramps might have found it after all these years. The scrap alone is worth more than a tinker’s penny. But even the tramps won’t touch it.”
“Pretty remote,” I said.
“Yeah, but everyone knows it’s here.”
Cutter stepped into the gloom. His shadow drifted among the bins and broken benches, burnt shingles and wood-shavings. I edged inside, staying close to the doorway.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people they could tuck in here,” Cutter said. “When this place was running full-bore, you couldn’t see anything but bodies all over the place. Like bats packed on top of each other, flapping and yawing.”
A shudder raced up my shoulders and along my arms. My breath still wouldn’t go down right.
“See, they used to work the slave shift in town. All of them, together, all night. They had their own foremen, their own regulations, and no one messed with them. They got paid pretty fair, too. That phrase, ‘slave shift,’ it’s just a name, you understand? It doesn’t mean anything. They came up with it themselves.”
“When was this?”
“Oh, 1919, I suppose. ’20, for certain. ’21. ’22. I can’t tell you how it got here, or exactly when, or who built it. It’s like it grew here while we were gone, fighting the war. We came back, and there was this whole new world everyone knew about. Screwpine.”
“O, Old Screwpine,” I suddenly sang, the tune springing to my lips. “Got what’s mine.” It was the longest and saddest Teddy Anklebones song I’d heard that night under the pear tree, outside the blue house.
“See?” said Cutter. “It even has its own songs, its own stories. That’s the part I don’t get. How’d they even find each other? How’d they figure out how or where the hell to go? Most of ‘em can’t read, let alone read a map.”
He knelt in the dirt near the circular saw and touched the teeth.
“Still sharp. It’s a damn good blade. Better than any they’ve got at the mill in Trampleton. So you tell me. Where’d it come from?”
“Mr. Cutter,” I said. “Could you start from the beginning?”
“I don’t know the beginning. My family’s been in these hills a hundred years, Dent. My grandfather helped build half of Trampleton, back when it was called Greentree, and my father lost all three of his older brothers fighting the Yankees.”
“Greentree,” I interrupted. “That was its original name?”
“Well, I think the Indians had a name for it. But that name meant something-tree, too. Point is, we’ve been here a long time. We know pretty much everything there is to know about this little region. And even after the War Between the States, not much changed. I went off to fight the Germans when I was twenty-four, and spent almost all of 1919 at a sanitarium in Cornwall, England. By the time I got home, there were two big differences: my father had died, and there wasn’t a single colored still working at the Trampleton mill. Not a one.”
My eyes kept flying around the space where we were standing. There were no birds or bats in those eaves, no spiders scuttling up the walls or lurking in the corners. The Screwpine mill was like a cargo container that had dropped off a train and tumbled into this clearing, scratched and beat to hell, but also right-side up and sealed.
“As far as I could tell,” Cutter said, “no one really minded when they stopped working at the mill in town. It just meant more jobs for the soldiers coming home. There were plenty of orders to fill in those days. Lots of people building things. Plenty of men wanting to earn their keep. Anyway, the coloreds didn’t leave all at once. They kind of trickled off one by one.
“And I’ll tell you a funny thing about that war. You see people doing things you just can’t believe–sawing out each other’s Adam’s apples with bayonets, cutting each other in half with machine guns—and it makes you not care so much about what the coloreds are up to one way or the other, you know? Unless it makes you care more, I guess.
“The point is, no one even checked, see? We knew they were out here, alright. We saw the houses going up in their part of town. Fancier houses than they’d had before. And all we thought, if we thought anything, was…why not? We didn’t realize…” He stroked his palm back and forth on the teeth of the sawblade. “The lumber boys were the ones who finally tipped us off. Like I said, there was so much business pouring in, even those guys began working night shifts. And that’s when they started coming back to town all spooked, babbling about ghost trains in the forest, dark shapes in the trees, midnight dances at somewhere called Screwpine.
“It was only a matter of time before some of us came out here to get a good look at what was what. God knows, I’d seen enough dead people by then to believe a few of them might have set up camp in our woods, even built themselves a ghost railroad. But what we actually found…what those people made…” He was stirring the sawdust with his peg-leg as if revealing–or else erasing–some half-obscured message. I slumped to my haunches and put my hands in the dirt, which felt surprisingly soft, like down.
“The first thing we found was this mill. Better equipped than any within a hundred miles or more. Then we realized just how many people were working it. They were running day shifts, night shifts, weekends, every kind of shift. And these were workers who were peachy-happy to take home whatever the mill wanted to pay. They never made a fuss, and always showed up the next day whether they were sick or sad or what. Because it was theirs, see?
“And then we found the railroad. Miles and miles and miles of it. Tracks we’d never seen, had never even known were out here, stretching to Greenville, Abbeville, Mitchellville, Orangeburg, all the way to Savannah, then south to the Panhandle. Rosewood.”
I’d heard of almost none of those places. But Cutter hardly seemed to be talking to me.
“It was like discovering a whole new country. A shadow-country operating right inside ours, but invisible. One with its own laws, its own by-ways and places of interest, hell, whole cities we knew nothing about. It was kind of thrilling, really. Kind of terrifying. A real Reconstruction. Only the places they made weren’t recreations of what was there before. They were building brand new places.”
Abruptly, his voice flattened. “For a while, the shock of it kept it safe. The sheer scope of what they’d done. Then, in ’23, the news started filtering up the line. Whole towns burned to the ground in Florida. Lynchings like we’ve never had here, ever, no matter what you’ve heard, all through Georgia and South Carolina. Up here in the North State, we like to think of ourselves as more than a little different. Comfortable with our coloreds. Comfortable with ourselves. Civilized. Everyone knowing their place, working together to make a good life for everyone. So nothing happened here until well into ’24. By then, what was left of these railroad tracks didn’t run anywhere anymore. We could have just left it alone. It was already dying.”
For a long time, then, he stopped talking. I half-thought he’d gone to sleep. “What happened here, Mr. Cutter?” I finally asked.
For the first time since we’d arrived here, he looked right at me. “July 4th, 1924. A hot, horrible night just like this one. We gathered with our rifles under the Sherman Street elms at dusk, same as always, and shot our way through town. But when we hit the edge of town, we reloaded our guns. And then we just kept going. I don’t remember anyone suggesting it. There wasn’t any big discussion. We just kept going straight through the woods. No one pointed a gun at anything but the ground.”
For a moment, Cutter’s voice went silent, but his mouth was still moving, as though the tale he was telling had slipped into a tunnel. Then it became audible again.
“We came upon a big group of them standing at the bottom of the path up the Back, out for an Independence Day picnic or something. Not a one said anything. It was like they’d been waiting for us. Like they were watching a parade. We marched straight up the mountain, down the same wagon trail you followed, through those trees, past the owl up there, and right down this hill.
Cutter rubbed his chin and squeezed his jaw a few times. “This part is almost funny. I mean, there we were, a good old-fashioned hating mob, the kind we’d heard about from our grandfathers but had never experienced or even seen. Carrying guns, no less. And for a good five minutes…maybe even longer…we couldn’t even get the coloreds to notice we were there.
“See, they were all inside. In here. Dozens of them, humming, cussing, heads-down busy. Right to the end, holiday or not, they kept that sawdust flying and those shingles stacking, even though there couldn’t have been many orders trickling in. Not a whole lot of the places they’d built were even standing anymore, from what we’d heard.”
Peering through the burned out holes where the windows must have been, I watched the grass turn even greener as the moon shouldered through the clouds. And all at once—as though I’d been here myself and witnessed it all—I could see Robert, limned in the moonlight, with his hands in his work-apron and that look in his eyes, more pride than defiance. He’d worked here, he must have. Probably, he’d been a foreman or something. For the first time since I’d joined the Writers’ Project, I was fairly certain I had found an honest-to-God story, one that hadn’t been told.
“Mr. Cutter,” I said, my words tumbling out in a rush. “Could you please just tell me how many people died?”
Surprise flashed across his face. “I told you, Dent. This here’s North Carolina.” He stirred the dirt in front of him again with his wooden leg. “For the longest time, we just stood around. Eventually, someone got the bright idea of chucking woodchips at the building. We didn’t even throw them at the windows, ‘cause we didn’t want to break any glass, see? It was almost like we were calling sweethearts out to dance.
“There was a lot of racket in there, obviously. So it took quite a while before they heard us. But when they finally saw us, it got real quiet in this clearing, man and boy. Quieter than now, if you can imagine, even with all those people packed down here. I never heard a woods so quiet. Not before a battle, anyway.
“The coloreds were all watching. Most of us were kind of shifting around, like we didn’t want to see each other there. And still, not a single one of us raised the weapon he was carrying. You know, I think if they’d had guns and come out shooting, we would have gone down meek as mowed hay.
“But whatever it was that had brought us here, Dent, it had them, too. I can’t explain it. It was like being part of one of them mechanical clocks. You know what I mean? Where you just wind around your track, and at the right moment, you do the movement you’ve been made for, and the hour sounds, and you’ve marked it the only way you ever could.”
I was nodding so fast that it felt as though my head might roll off my neck. Somehow, I really did think I understood. I’d spent the last few months advancing along my own track, oblivious to its existence, all the way to this moment. And now I was here. And my task was to record it.
“They didn’t have guns,” Cutter said. “So instead of shooting, or yelling, or fighting…they came out singing. I’ll never forget that song. Ever. When my blood runs chilly and cold…”
The second he started chanting the tune, I cried out. The melody buffeted against me like the wind that had battered Grace as she’d clung to the side of the boxcar the last time I’d heard it. I may have been oblivious to my own track, I realized, but Grace wasn’t. God, had she conceived of this even then? It was why she’d sent me to Robert’s. She wanted me—an outsider, with no foreknowledge or conceivable connection to any of these events—to make my way to these woods, discover this story, and bring it back.
I started singing right along. “Do Lord. Do remember me.”
That stopped Cutter. He looked alarmed. “You know it?”
“My friend does. I mean, I’ve heard it.”
“Yeah, well not like this you haven’t. All of ‘em singing together. There was no harmony, understand, none of that fancy church singing. But they were all doing it, real slow. Out they came. They didn’t look at us, either. Most of them didn’t. The ones whose faces I saw looked a little scared, a little sad. And tired. But there was this one big fella. Beady black eyes and forearms like clubs.”
A violent shiver shot all the way down into my feet. Of course he meant Robert. It explained so much about the way people talked about him. The way everyone, not just the coloreds, knew him, or knew of him. What had he done?
“Dent, are you listening? The whole…evacuation, I guess you’d call it…couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes. Then they were gone, and it got even quieter. Like they’d never been here at all.”
Gliding past me, Cutter left the building. I followed on unsteady legs with that song still echoing in my ears. Outside, he looked at me, then up the hill, as though watching the ghost-parade of colored men all over again.
“I could be wrong. You never really know. But I think we’d maybe decided, somehow, that we weren’t going to do anything else. It just seemed silly. We’d rousted them, proven we still could, and I guess that was pretty much the point. And the sight of this place, with all of them in there…well, I can’t speak for the others. But it affected me different than I thought it would. I didn’t like the look of it without them in it.
“I really thought we were just going to turn around. As a matter of fact, we’d already done it. We must have, because we were all looking up that way when the big, beady-eyed fella reappeared. Well, he just stared at us for a little while. Then he stepped over the ridge, like he was easing into a lake, and strolled right down. Alone.”
With a last glance at the mill, Cutter started up the rise. Whether because of his leg or because he was tired, he kept slipping this time, though he never quite fell. I scrambled up behind him and put a steadying hand on the small of his back. We climbed the rest of the way together.
At the ridge, Cutter sighed and mopped his forehead. “As soon as we saw the big guy, every single one of us stopped. In those days, remember—hell, it’s not so different now—most of us weren’t used to coloreds coming unless we called them. And this one just kept coming. Still humming that damn fool song.”
“Was his name Robert?”
Cutter’s head swung around as if I’d shaken him. “Well, I didn’t ask him, then.”
“But you know it now.”
“Same as you.”
Dizzy with my own months-long obliviousness, I nodded.
“He reached the bottom of the hill and ambled into the clearing. He wasn’t looking at any of us directly. But he wasn’t looking away, either. He was muttering, too, like maybe he’d forgotten something. When he passed, we all stepped back, every one of us, as if he was some general come to inspect the troops.
“And then he stopped. Right beside us. And he kind of half-turned. He said to Old Man Riley, ‘Mind if I borrow this?’ And he put his big, black hand right on the petrol can that Riley had lugged out here. I was thinking maybe the man was plumb crazy. But not suicidal. If he’d touched a gun, someone would have shot him. Maybe even me. But the petrol can?
“Old Man Riley was too flummoxed to respond one way or the other. And the colored, he just took the can from him, easy as you please, uncapped it, and went back to muttering. Then he strolled right up to the mill and started dousing it, with these big sweeping tosses. He was kind of shouting as he did it, like he was throwing a child up in the air instead of splashing gasoline all over everything. He walked all the way around the building. When he came back, he dropped the empty can at Riley’s feet, put his hands in his overalls and pulled out a match.
“Now I don’t know why. You’re the writer, maybe you can explain it. But here’s the thing that’s stuck in my mind, all these years. The colored just couldn’t get the match lit. He’d put on all that show, but I could see that his hands were shaking, and he just couldn’t get it lit.
“He was trying so hard, he finally snapped the match. That was the first time he actually looked up. And I couldn’t believe it. The damn fool had this cockeyed grin on his face. The next match caught, and he flipped it. There was a little pop, and the place was ablaze. After that, we were all so busy watching the flames, none of us saw where the colored went. He didn’t come back through us, so he must have crossed the railroad tracks and gone into the trees.”
With that, Cutter lurched away toward the path.
“That’s pretty much all,” he said when I caught up to him. “We didn’t stay long. We hurried back here, then split up. Nobody said anything. We just went home. It must have been months before the lumber boys started their damn fool whispering again. Spooks in the trees. Lights. One night, I couldn’t stand it, I marched right out of the tavern and came all the way up here by myself. I didn’t see spooks or lights or anything else, just that empty shell of a building down there. Nothing remarkable about it at all, except that it was still standing. And there was no way it should have been.
“That was enough for me. I packed up my house and started building my cabin out here the very next day. Why? I don’t even know, so don’t go thinking you do. The only time I go back to Trampleton is to catch the train. And I’ve come to this clearing almost every night now for more than ten years. No matter what anyone else tells you, I’ve never seen lights or spooks or any other goddamn thing other than what we saw tonight.
“But this is the point, Dent, and the reason I brought you here. I think about it all the time. That night, and what happened. So I just decided you might ought to put this place in your tourbook. Even if it’s not really a place anymore. Just in case one day…I don’t know. In case one of them takes a motor tour and wants to see their country.