Narrated by Bob Eccles
“Fact is, your last semester was a total failure,” Professor John Albemarle told the boy. “I strongly suggest you take the fall term and go down to the Hollow. Come spring, we’ll see about readmitting you — on probation.”
Albemarle went on, speaking over the pipe stem in his mouth. “Take time by getting to know the Hollow. Research those battles in the War. Find out what happened to your great-grandfather while securing a place in history for the sons who didn’t come home.”
In particular, Albemarle told him there was a Major Ezekiel Callendar who remained an enigmatic warrior. “See if you can confirm your ancestor was there in ’64.”
Ian Whitehead had reached that difficult period between youth and manhood when flashes of despair overwhelmed him. The situation stated by Albemarle offered the only avenue to redemption.
* * *
Ian tested the idea on his way to West Virginia, and suddenly felt the Northern cause could be his cause. He would live where they died, where his ancestor had proven himself.
“My thesis is evolving,” he e-mailed his professor in the following days. “I go into Harley’s Cafe for cigarettes and stay to listen, or hang out while old men drink coffee and sift through memories of what might have been.”
He described being caught up in the oral history told by a man named Bishop about a Randolph Stickley and the ghost of a British soldier he met on the pike one stormy night. And the hair-raising tale of Molly O’Hearn and her lover. A fellow with few teeth recounted that one with glee, making Ian wonder if Molly lived over the next hill until the toothless one mentioned Molly lived in 18th century Ireland.
At night, Ian returned to the Jackson Hotel, the only guest in the frame building. And he wrote the stories out under the electric light on the table.
The tales started as simply as a farmer remembering that Jamie Hutchins was shot as a spy down the road from where a man planned to put up a corn crib. Or they’d chortle over the familiar words of how Solomon Reed and his dog had fought a bear, taking turns bashing and biting till the bear gave up.
Time stood as still as if the Hollow were a West Virginia Brigadoon. They treated their ancestors the way you might set extra places at table.
No one paid any more attention to Ian than if he had been a spirit wafting across the town square — until he met Amelia, a girl with a shock of yellow hair and blue eyes as sharp as diamonds. He exchanged the barest of nods on the street and then she poked a finger at Ian’s smart phone. She might have been 14 or 17 or 21 — he couldn’t tell from her smooth features under a field of freckles.
“What’s that do?” she asked.
Ian showed her how the silver device took pictures and made telephone calls and kept his notes and music. The girl’s head dipped, as if accepting that the object might have been a pebble stuck in her shoe. And she walked away.
* * *
Ian was having coffee at Harley’s when the subject of cooking drifted down the counter. Impetuously, Ian told the men in John Deere caps that Texas-style and South Carolina techniques were different, and that Southern-style cooking was getting popular in New York and Boston. Bishop glared.
Amelia tugged at his sleeve and guided him out of Harley’s. “Y’all were makin’ an ass out of yourself.”
On a bench next to a bronze statue of Major Callendar the girl explained, “They weren’t talkin’ about cooking. They were tradin’ words — the same stories they tell purt’ near every time they talk.” Then she burst out, “You’re the flatlander, ain’t you?”
“I’m a student. I’m trying to put some details around this Major Callendar’s flanking movement against Grant’s Army of the Potomac in 1864. That’s my thesis. I think my great-grandpa might’ve been part of . . .”
“But you don’t know cooking.”
“Now I’m changing my subject,” he went on. “What I’m thinking is mythic history, the way that people here refer to the old stories like they happened yesterday. Up north, in the cities,” he snorted dramatically, “people have the memory of a cockroach. They don’t remember their father’s stories, or their grandparents’.”
“You mean like the stories Grammie tells?” Amelia shucked her denim jacket from her shoulders and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her T-shirt. Beneath the jacket, he saw that she definitely wasn’t a child.
“Picayunes.” Ian pointed. “I thought they stopped making those.”
Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Wouldn’t know. They’s still around.”
“Aren’t you kind of young to be smoking?” Ian suddenly realized he had patronized the woman, breaking whatever bond was forming.
Amelia squinted. “I been smoking all my life and it ain’t done me no harm.”
* * *
The next day, Ian caught up with Amelia sitting on a bench in front of the municipal building. “So tell me about Grammie. She’s your, what? Grandmother?”
Amelia leaned back and crossed her leg at the ankle, drawing deep on the unfiltered cigarette as she summoned up her next words. “I reckon she’s Grammie to everyone. She lives with my Great Aunt Sarah. Grammie’s the oldest person in the Hollow.”
An electric feeling coursed through Ian’s shoulders as he considered the stories she might unveil — those that had come with the pioneers who crossed the Shenandoah in the 1700s. The stories told by these preliterate tribal woods-dwellers would be his life-giving transfusion.
“Take ya there if you want,” Amelia said. “Never find her place less’n I show ya.”
Amelia began ambling down the street while Ian slowed his pace, inhaling the straw and pine smell that emanated from her. Behind them, Bishop came to the door of Harley’s and stared.
* * *
Great Aunt Sarah’s house might have grown out of the landscape, weathered and beaten by winter storms and summer suns. A sycamore tree leaned perilously against the out-building, while a sassafras supported a shed further down the hill. Ian was assaulted by an odor when Amelia opened the door without knocking. It was the smell of herbs and once-living things that hung from rafters. The only light was allowed in by a window allowing faint sunshine through the dust motes.
“Auntie Sarah, this here’s the Yankee. He wants to meet Grammie.”
Amelia’s great aunt was a stout woman who stared at Ian as her hands worked at the apron covering her belly. “Sit and eat.” She turned her broad back into the darkness to tend something on the wood-burning stove. Feeling awkward, Ian took the chair Amelia pointed to. Was it unethical to intrude on these simpletons, even for the good purpose of immortalizing them?
Sarah placed an ironstone plate down and he stared at the meal, recognizing potatoes and lumps of meat. A corn biscuit dove into the edge of the stew. He took the spoon and touched the stew tentatively as Sarah set a coffee cup in front of him.
His body twitched as a hoot of laughter emerged next to his elbow. He hadn’t seen the old woman in the shadows.
“Eat up, boy,” the crone said. “Eat ever meal like it mought be your last.”
“Grammie?” Ian nodded his introduction. “I’m pleased to meet you. I was talking to Amelia about General Grant and Major Callendar. I’m studying history. About the War hereabouts.”
The woman was less than five feet tall. Her bare feet were planted squarely on the plank floor and she was thin to the point of daring a breeze to blow her away. Long white hair draped over her chicken-bone shoulders. Tiny black eyes stared from her lined face.
She cackled again. “You know about that. That were a good war, the blood flowing like a mountain creek and bodies lyin’ like logs in the road. Old Captain Quimby — him what was a judge — was crying and shooting his pistol at anything that moved, screamin’ for his daddy to save him. A good war, that one.”
“Is any war good?” Ian asked.
“War’s war, boy. As natural as giving birth to a bairn. The men kill each other and the women have more babies. Fact of life.” Her head leaned back and she stared at the cabin ceiling as if to picture again the running and firing and crying in the hills, bodies clad in blue and gray falling in the gulches while a pall of white smoke drifted over the field of death.
Through the long afternoon Grammie told stories of the men who had grown up, left the Hollow for the War and returned to the sanctity of home. Or didn’t. Of women who persevered in the face of tribulation, jealousy and retribution. And had more babies. And those babies who grew up to go off to die in Mexico and Cuba, strange islands in the Pacific and a place called Korea. When the sun dipped behind the hills, her head nodded to her chest and she slept. Sarah had gone out, perhaps an hour now, and Ian heard the crack of a rifle from far away.
Ian turned to Amelia, silently smoking Picayunes with her eyes closed. “How old is your Grammie?”
“Don’t rightly know. Purty old.”
“I was born when Mr. Buchanan took office in ‘57.” Grammie’s whispery voice made him turn, but her eyes were still closed. Had he heard right? She might have been referring to a local politician.
* * *
He slipped out and went home by the moonlight, feeling the freeze descend on the Hollow and sorry he hadn’t brought a coat. Dry leaves blew by his face. People at Harley’s called this the full hunter’s moon. With leaves dropping and deer fattened, it was the locals’ time to hunt and kill.
A hand reached out of the darkness and yanked him aside, drawing a yelp of surprise.
Bishop stood under a tree, tightening his hold on of Ian’s shirt. “You be Ian Whitehead,” he stated.
“And you’re Mr. Bishop.” Ian felt his throat tighten. The fist clutching his shirt was becoming awkward.
“Sit down and we’ll talk.” Ian was yanked down to sit on a log, so uncomfortably close to Bishop he could smell the man’s sweat. “Drink,” the man said, putting a bottle with no label in Ian’s hand.
“I really don’t . . .” he started to say, but got an elbow in his ribs. He unscrewed the cap and swallowed, knowing from the fire in his mouth this was homemade corn liquor. He wished this was a welcome sharing of hospitality, but Bishop’s ceremony made him recall the way the Japanese drank sake before they went off to die.
“Why you here?” Bishop took a pull on the bottle and wiped his mouth.
“I’m studying the War, the battle of ’64. You see, Grant was driving south When . . .”
“Why you talking to Grammie?” Bishop’s words were toneless and challenging.
“She knows the history of the Hollow. She puts color around the events — like they happened yesterday.” Ian felt he was being interrogated, might have been in a police station instead of the West Virginia woods on a frosty night.
“I know you, boy. We’re not fools, not me nor Grammie.”
“Well, I’ve been here a week.” He was wondering if he ought to be more assertive. Weren’t these direct, no-nonsense characters?
“You’re a Whitehead, same’s the turncoat who put a bullet into my greatgrandpappy’s brain and deserted to the Yanks.”
Ian bristled. “Not me. My great-granddad was with the 7th Vermont.”
“I say you’re the same.” Bishop stood up. “Best watch your step. Guard what health you got. Don’t talk to Grammie neither.” He turned and stepped away, disappearing immediately into the thicket.
A silence, unbroken by insects or forest noises, enveloped Ian, but it seemed that the woods exhaled in an otherworldly susurration. He stood, simultaneously chilled by the exchange with Bishop and warmed by his moonshine. Why had Bishop thought his ancestor was a Southern deserter? These people had a strange agenda of expectations and grievances, tolerating him the way they’d give wide berth around a rabid skunk.
“Don’t that man beat all.” The statement came out of the darkness as Amelia stepped onto the road. The moon lit her face with a pallor that was both beautiful and terrifying. “But you are a Whitehead.” Her words were a statement of fact. “And, it’s the truth that his great-grandpappy was shot by your whatever great it was. People here don’t never forget such things.”
“What are you doing here?” Ian felt dumb, stating the obvious.
“Goin’ home. Same’s you.” She smiled in a way that harbored a secret.
“Want me to walk you home? It’s late.”
She continued smiling strangely. “Don’t think you want to walk none. You want to lay me down in those leaves? Give me a squeeze?”
“Well,” he said, “that’s a pretty direct proposition.” Embarrassing was more like it. Knowing the strange people here, it was an offer that could get him tarred and feathered, hung from a tree, or pushed into a shotgun wedding.
“Ain’t proposin’. I done you a favor, lettin’ you meet Grammie. Maybe you do me one too.” The smile never left her face as the denim jacket slid to the ground and she pulled the T-shirt over her yellow hair to expose her body. Her white breasts reflected the moonlight, seeming to give light without heat.
* * *
Ian stayed in his room the next morning, writing until hunger drove him to Harley’s for lunch. Amelia had been a wild animal, clawing and grunting as though she was wrestling a bear. It had been both terrifying and exhilarating as they tumbled through the leaves. Then she fetched up her clothes and disappeared, naked, into the woods. He walked home alone.
He was mopping up the last of his grits and egg with a piece of bread when someone banged into the booth behind him.
“She’s dead,” the man said. Ian turned to see a man he recognized as Calvin Mayfair, the preacher. “Died in her sleep last night.”
“Where she be resting now?” asked someone in a work shirt and billed cap.
“They got the box out. She’s in the kitchen. It’ll freeze tonight out in the shed and won’t thaw till spring.”
Without judging the consequences, Ian turned. “Who’s dead?”
There was a moment of silence as Reverend Mayfair and the farmer stared at him. “Grammie Callendar.” Ian had chatted briefly with Rev. Mayfair, but he felt only disgust with Mayfair’s evangelical superstitions.
“But I was just talking to her,” Ian said. “Yesterday. She seemed so alive and healthy.”
“Well-preserved,” Rev. Mayfair said phlegmatically.
“Will there be a service? A funeral? I was very impressed with Grammie.”
“No service,” Mayfair said. He got up abruptly and left the coffee shop.
“Wait,” Ian said to his retreating back. “Her last name is the same as the Confederate Major? The statue in the square?”
The pair looked at each other and then at Ian. “Mought say that,” the farmer said.
Ian, thinking about Grammie, couldn’t go back to his room, so he retraced his steps to the shack Amelia had led him to.
“I had to come,” he said when Amelia opened the door.
“Knew you’d come.” She smiled, as though carrying a childlike secret that couldn’t be shared.
“Grammie seemed special, and I want to pay my respects.”
Amelia nodded and stepped aside. In the dark living room, a large coffin lay on the table he’d eaten at the day before. Grammie barely filled a portion of the pine box.
“Sit,” Aunt Sarah said, putting a cup of coffee in front of him.
“How did . . . how did Grammie die?” He drank deeply and let the chicory-laced coffee warm him.
Amelia smiled. Sarah said, “It was her time. She’s waiting.”
“Yes, she looks peaceful.”
“After war, there’s peace,” Amelia said. “Drink up that coffee.”
A sound made Ian look up to see Bishop silhouetted in the doorway. The Reverend Mayfair was behind him.
“Hello,” Ian said, but it came out as a whisper. His mouth had gone numb, and the feeling continued down to his hands as the cup dropped to the table. “What . . . ?” he tried to ask.
“A draft. To make you sleep,” Sarah said.
Bishop began laughing and had to hold on to the door jamb. “Sleep, Whitehead, you damn Yankee.”
“It won’t hurt,” the Reverend offered. “You’re going to save Grammie. You both will sleep through the winter, then she’ll wake up and be right as rain.”
“Me . . . me?” He tried not to think of freezing to death, lying in the box next to Grammie.
Mayfair shook his head. “Sorry, boy.”
Amelia took his numb hand. “It’s redemption. Your ancestor killed Mr. Bishop’s. And Grammie needs to rest ever so often. To do that proper, she’s got to sleep next to the body of a strong young man. Come springtime, we’ll bring her back from the barn. And the best part? I think I’m pregnant, so next year Grammie will have someone to tell stories to.”
“We’ll be sure to tell your Professor Albemarle — Mr. Bishop’s nephew — how much help you’ve been,” Mayfair said.
# # #
AUTHOR BIO: Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Gumshoe Review, OG Short Fiction, Over My Dead Body, Pif Magazine, Pulp Modern, r.kv.r.y, and a dozen other publications. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers. He has directed communications for Fortune 500 companies, publicized the Connecticut Film Festival, managed programs at Western Connecticut State University, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey.
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com