We search for meaning in life’s events; sometimes that search is fruitless.
One thousand years ago, a holy man traveling to Hangzhou in east central China surprised his rustic audience with the news that their local mountain had once stood near his village back in India. His followers quickly renamed their mountain "The Mountain That Flew Here." Today vacationing honeymooners visit this magical mountain to pray for prosperity and the happy arrival of sons.
My father, Guy Woodleaf, was twelve when he chopped off his twin brother's finger with an ax. The year was 1930. Guilt, indignities, betrayal, and brutish circumstances were commonplace that year. Mrs. Woodleaf sent her twins into the henhouse early one Sunday morning to kill two chickens for lunch. Aunt Violet has always believed Shawn only intended it as a joke: He laid his pinkie upon the bloody chopping block while two headless chickens flopped around in the yard.
"I dare you!" Shawn said, sneering at Guy.
"I'll do it!" Guy said, then cocked the ax above his head.
A chicken rose and staggered blindly toward the twins. Guy jumped out of its path while Shawn hooted his youthful contempt. The chicken wobbled off in a drunken barnyard do-si-do before it kicked onto its side.
"Chicken!" Shawn chortled. He spit through his teeth like a boxer.
Guy raised the ax into the air and hesitated.
Shawn shouted, "Double-dog dare!"
Shawn yelped sharply, grabbed his gushing hand, and dashed across the porch and inside the house with a torn expression of alarm and gutsy admiration for his brother's nerve etched across his face. It was one of the rare moments when anyone would see Shawn cry.
Guy had been born first. He had emerged thin and unhappy and vaguely introspective and, just like a dog or bear, rarely stopped to consider the universe outside the bankrupt impulses which would one day destroy him. The midwife was busy cleaning up when Grandmother launched Shawn into the womb of time like a slick melon seed flicked between her forefinger and thumb. The family claims he entered the world laughing. Shawn would become the wild child and, truth be told, his parents' favorite son. In time, because of his toughness, he loomed as big as the flesh-eating Minotaur. Their older sisters immediately adored the new twins and squabbled over who would bathe them and powder their bottoms and smear Vaseline upon their quaint nubbins.
The twins left school after finishing the eighth grade to farm with their father in the Mississippi River bottoms. Guy said he had enjoyed school some while it had lasted. Shawn didn't seem to really give a damn.
Most of the other young men from the bottoms left school with them: By then they could read and write, multiply and divide, and knew enough history to participate in a rural democracy. They quickly developed a respect for the lush geography that shaped them, and understood its selectivity much better than many who finished high school. While marginal crops and difficult field hands often left them exhausted, the yearning leg-clench of their women left them feverish and reverential. They believed in determination and sacrifice, God and family and country, and that playing by the rules really mattered. Too emotionally distant to articulate well such deeply rooted passions, many of those tough plowboys could kill. They would soon make some damned good soldiers, those big glorious men.
Shawn was the first to tire of farming and joined the Merchant Marines shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Each year at Christmas, Aunt Violet corners me between the chocolate pie and the banana nut fruitcake to whisper a solemn foreboding, since most Woodleaf men die so violently in their prime. (I admit to having wondered if my father felt a nasty twitch of what lay in store for him when the telegram announced Shawn was lost at sea.)
Then she closes her large doleful eyes, clutches her chest as if wringing aching hunger from tragic old memories, and repeats our family's long bloated epiphany:
Shawn died shortly after midnight below decks in an oil tanker torpedoed five miles off the coast of Texas in March of 1942. The family had desperately prayed that Shawn had managed to survive, and several brave plots were invented: Shawn had been a gifted Sunday-afternoon athlete who loved competition and bruises and glory; surely such a young bull could easily swim five miles in a calm sea.
But the War Department had sent the tanker's lone survivor, a badly scarred young sailor who had stood watch on the bow that fateful night, to assure the family that Shawn had died quickly in his sleep. The young seaman had stuttered; and he had spoken sadly, and with great guilt, about his brave comrades who had died in their sleep, while he had been blown clear of most of the sizzling oil. Aunt Violet says she knew from the look in his one good eye, he wished he had perished with Shawn.
The ship went down quickly. "N-n-no, there w-w-were no s-s-screams; j-j-j-just the hissing of the s-s-ship as it s-s-sank b-b-beneath the wa-wa-water."
There was no more doubt about it: Shawn was gone.
Guy, married by then, had not waited on the draft, but had enlisted only a few days after Pearl Harbor. It was the right thing to do, just as it was the right time to be magnanimous, and he had felt only temporary disgust for the giddy town boys with the bright, coddled looks and smell of a vacation who had applied for military deferments as gentlemen farmers. After Pearl Harbor, I imagine he felt the same remote hunger he must have felt after quitting school; he listened patiently to the moral outrage of his crippled President, but also clearly understood with the rapid pulse of a hunter the gut-ripping realities of war. When the Army trained him as a medic, it was OK with him; he had often doctored the deep wounds of stubborn mules and careless black men. Then for several tedious months he had escorted shell-shocked soldiers to makeshift asylums throughout the South before he finally received word that he was headed overseas. That night he called for his young bride, Diane Rose.
Mother rode in an overcrowded train for eighteen hours to say goodbye to a husband she barely knew in an obscure hotel room somewhere in Kansas City. Her world had grown acute since Pearl Harbor. And, although she had been physically exhausted by her trip, she had fought back her tears to make their last night together special, just in case something unthinkable happened to Guy as it had to Shawn.
Guy had a secret plan. Since the last thing Diane Rose wanted was a child to raise alone, Guy had secretly snipped off the tip of his condom. Getting the beautiful Diane Rose pregnant made urgent sense to this laconic man more accustomed to the swoosh of a plow than the deep drumbeat of war.
Afterwards, she was outraged to discover Guy's cheap deception and thrummed her indignation to everyone in the family who would listen. But on that night my father wasn't moved by her anger and righteous tears; if a man was about to die in his prime, his wife should at least have a baby. So, like millions of other wartime brides, my mother discovered her husband was as capable of dishonesty as the next horny man.
"If it's a boy, name him Aaron!" he shouted to Diane Rose as his troop train pulled away from the loading platform early the next morning, leaving her shivering and anxious and alone in the bitter teeth of a February snowstorm.
It was almost three years before Guy returned home, exhausted by terrible visions on Guadalcanal and changed forever by the awful momentum of those years. While he served overseas, Grandfather had died from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by a bout with hepatitis, and Grandmother had moved off the farm and in with his sister in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Wartime photographs of my father dressed in his sleek, green Army uniform show a serious young man with dark eyes and heavy eyebrows. His military hat is cocked back upon the top of his head. In those old photographs, which I love, he glows virtuous and ripping and timeless.
He soon found work as an automobile mechanic at the Ford dealership in Lazich and convinced Diane Rose they needed another child, my sister, Hanna. We rode with him when he died violently on a cold Sunday afternoon.
January that year had opened with several warm, vagrant days that promised much more than the month could deliver, then turned raw as an ice storm knocked out the electrical power for three bitter days. Many in bundled Lazich staggered before a surgical wind that cracked open their tired old bones. My father had just reluctantly agreed to serve as a pallbearer for a distant cousin whom he had not seen in years. Since it also meant hauling all of us over one hundred miles into Mississippi to sleep in a strange, lumpy bed, he saw little reason to feel honored. But, still, Minnie was family.
Hanna and I had raged like heathens at the cemetery that afternoon, and Hanna had almost pitched headlong into Cousin Minnie's open grave during a game of tag with our young Mississippi cousins. Our father snapped his fingers at our mother and pointed us toward our car, but Mother was too busy snuffing out her grief with a frilly handkerchief to notice. So, he marched us out behind a cedar tree and thrashed us with his belt.
When we returned, Cousin Minnie's casket had been lowered into her grave, and the funeral party was breaking up before the biting wind. My father tossed a handful of dirt onto the coffin as an earnest though feeble salute, but the coffin lid drummed back unkindly. Sullen gravediggers in heavy gray overalls and gray cowhide gloves tweaked their shovels impatiently in a mound of waiting dirt. It quickly became obvious he was just in the way.
As we meekly climbed into the backseat of our car, he mumbled to our mother, "The only reason God gives us kids is to humble us!"
He rushed us through Memphis and across the turbid Mississippi River. Shafts of filtered sunlight pierced the afternoon's eerie grayish-green cast. When we turned onto a familiar narrow county road that lead toward our home in Lazich, I had regained enough courage to ask, "Momma, tell me again why it's called Ox-Plum Road."
Mother smiled. She had been blessed with charm and the gift of words. And even if she had granted my frequent requests and retold a story a thousand times, I always wanted to hear it again:
"Back toward that line of trees over there," she said, sweeping her hand to the open fields outside the car in a gesture so subtly defined each of us, even my father, turned our gaze to the distant line of leafless trees, "Two brothers once farmed several acres of land, land that had once belonged to their father, and before that to their father's father, and even his father before him." She paused to allow the sweep of such history to etch our souls.
"Being brothers, and naturally competitive, each brother wanted to make a flamboyant mark to win the hand of a young widow both brothers loved. The older brother had planted a prized plum orchard that almost everyone agreed made the best plum jelly in the county. Like a cider famous for its sweetness, the juice from these plums was unlike all others. Its crystal amber was described as something fit for the table of the gods.
"Well, the younger brother couldn't be outdone, and he cherished a stout ox, which he had lovingly raised from soon after its birth. Some said he loved this ox almost as much as he loved the pretty widow--and maybe even more than his brother loved his wild plums, if that was possible.
"Each fall, when he showed the ox at the fair, he always brought home a blue ribbon. Just as his older brother brought home blue ribbons for his plum jelly.
"Then one day something happened to the ox. Everyone had a theory. Some said maybe a swarm of bees stung it. Others said it drank poisoned water. Nobody really knew. But something happened to the ox, and it broke through a fence and raged throughout the plum orchard, where it destroyed all of the prized plum trees. The angry farmer, in a wild rage, then killed his brother's ox with an ax.
"When confronted by his young brother, the farmer, still reeling from anger at his losses, boasted of his deed. The two brothers then cursed the day the other had been born. The younger brother stormed off after swearing he would soon get revenge.
Late that night the ox's owner slipped through a window in his brother's cabin and killed his brother in his sleep. Some said he used the ax that killed his ox. Others said, instead, he strangled his brother with a strand of rusty wire.
"A mob of angry neighbors didn't wait for a trial, but hanged the younger brother from a large cottonwood tree that grew along this road. Then they burned his body and left him hanging for days as an example to others of how unchecked greed will spoil their hearts. And that's how this road got its name."
I fell back against the seat and thought about the sweet taste of wild plum jelly and how awful it would feel to be strangled with rusty barbed wire.
We were almost home when a large black car blocked our passage. I watched the other car hog the road. Strong gusts of wind buffeted it across the center line, then back against the hard gravel shoulder making it impossible for us to safely pass. Ox-Plum Road had been built many decades earlier down the turn-rows at the ends of long cotton fields; it was a dangerous road, which twisted and galvanized itself into a treacherous tangle.
My mother gripped the dashboard with her long, red fingernails, meant to mimic the long, sensuous nails of her idol, Bette Davis. "He's drunk, Guy!" Mother said, biting her bottom lip in annoyance while thrusting out her chin.
"Nigger!" my father growled. He jerked impatiently at the knot on the wide tie I had chosen for him at Christmas.
I cowered against the backseat. Mother had once warned me to never use the word "nigger" around the "coloreds" because they could retaliate by calling me a "bastard." (Bastard?-- something, no doubt, ugly, dark, and sticky as a goat turd; she had secretly whispered the word bastard with her lips pressed tightly against my ear.)
I kneaded the clay-colored corduroy upholstery of our car with my fingers and thumb and sniffed cautiously at the odor of my fear--a fruitlike dankness akin to that of the sallow dirt scoured from the depths of Cousin Minnie's grave; I glanced cautiously at my father's eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror. His coal black eyes snapped open, then blinked softly shut, just like a turtle's lazy crescent eyes do as it crunches the head off a water moccasin.
The absolute tone in his voice was the same one he had used earlier that morning when he had caught me looking up Aunt Sarah's dress from my hiding place under the breakfast table. (The day before I had overheard my father tell some men at the funeral home that it was a pity that Sarah had never remarried; she might be his sister-in-law, but he wasn't blind. The woman had some fine, long legs.) Kapop! Kapop! Kapop! The belt had slashed with quirky authority across my butt. Don't cry! Don't cry! my father had warned.
I listened closely to the coupling of the accelerator, gear, and clutch--an ingenious mastery of an unforgiving machine. Mother gripped the strap on the passenger door. Her pinched expression showed the grim complicity of the rattled. Hanna played with the wide-eyed doll she had received for Christmas. An annoying bug when at her best, Hanna was too young to really matter.
My father retreated twenty yards. His jaw had stiffened into a scowling determination. His red-scrubbed mechanic hands gripped the steering wheel. Grease in the lines of his knuckles had been cast into braids of gray lace. His wonderful magic made the engine roar. Then he smiled at me in the rear-view mirror, a brief smile full of child-like conspiracy: Watch this one, Spooner! (Spooner was his pet name for a child who shoveled in his oatmeal at breakfast.)
The black car up ahead swerved slowly to the right. Father saw his chance and slammed the gas pedal against the floor. Our old Ford responded with such a splendid leap my father grunted eagerly. Then the other car danced back across the center line just as my father dug a hard left to pass.
Our cars brushed in a soft, clumsy kiss. Time crawled up in one long, insidious jiggle until I was thrown free. Our car sent up a great ball of white dust and gravel as it rolled beneath me. I could have easily reached out and touched the power lines nearby, but I remembered mother's warning that electricity could kill me. Then my face plowed into the hard gravel on the shoulder of the road.
The other driver backed his car to a stop beside me. A tall woman opened the passenger door and stepped out to tower above me. She was young, maybe seventeen or eighteen, and she wore a white letter sweater over a white blouse and black skirt. A gold letter D was sewn onto her sweater and three gold chevrons adorned one sleeve. Her long brown legs ended in a pair of tattered shoes. She wore no socks over her sharp ankles. She stepped cautiously toward me like a lanky, guarded bird.
I sat up with great effort. Needles of pain stabbed my face. I tried to stand, but my foot was twisted at a crazy angle and couldn't bear my weight. The abstracted face of the young woman stiffened, as if she was studying something quizzical or something unreal or something mighty troubling. She slapped herself sharply with both arms and rocked from her waist. She opened her lips to emit a low, painful moan. Then she pinned her bottom lip beneath her upper teeth as she moaned. She nodded slowly and rocked deeply--like old women in a trance sometimes do in a fundamentalist church service.
I reached up for her hand. "Help me," I asked. She quit rocking to pull me to my feet. I stood for a shaky moment, but fell back into the hard, loose gravel. She then walked toward the hunkered wreckage of our car. The battered hood dangled from the front of the car like an exhausted tongue. The front passenger door was ripped away. Dirt and gravel and strips of metal were pelted up and down the highway like silver jacks. Steam hassled up from the wounded radiator in marvelous frosty plumes. The rancid stench of gasoline hung low in the air. My father's right leg was pinned under the wreck.
Mother straddled my father's chest, and she reminded me of a mechanical bird in a carnival booth dipping for a shallow drink from the rim of a water glass. They seemed caught up in a game of roughhouse we sometimes played on the living room rug. She clutched his shirt below the collar. My proud Christmas tie was twisted behind his neck. "Wake up, Guy!" she shouted. "You've gotta wake up now."
The young woman who stood above them nudged my father with her shoe, but, like a cold viper, he didn't move. I glanced through the open door at the man in the front seat of the big black car. A faded cotton quilt had slid onto the floor of the car in a soiled heap. An old guitar was propped up against the front seat. Its long neck poked into the air, and the driver whumped it sideways with his arm as he leaned in my direction. "Come on!" he shouted through her open door. I flinched and glanced quickly away before he noticed me.
Then the man clumsily shoved open his door and stood with his elbow wedged against his car. "Come on! Quick!" It was the young woman and not me he wanted.
"They need help," the woman called. She pronounced it hep.
"Git yore black ass back in this goddamned car!" he shouted. He jerked his cupped hand across his chest.
The woman turned away. Her long brown hand floated down to gently touch Mother's shoulder. Mother looked quizzically up into the young woman's face. "He won't wake up," Mother said. She shook Father's shoulders again. "You've gotta wake up, Guy! You quit teasin' me and wake up!"
The driver lurched toward the young woman. She jerked backward when he grabbed her sweater and yanked her away from the wreck. He waved his big brown hand again in the direction of his car. "Hurry!" But he didn't sound as angry as before.
"Why?" the young woman persisted. She seemed drowsy, half-awake.
He snapped the heel of his fist against her shoulder and spun her around. "Do it now! Before somebody comes!" But the woman wouldn't leave.
The man stared past her for a moment deciding. He squatted beside my father and studied my father's face. My mother looked at the man but did not speak. The cold wind whipped the man's dark flannel trousers around his legs. He breathed heavily through his nostrils, like something cornered after a long chase over high ground. He looked across his shoulder along Ox-Plum Road which stretched out toward Lazich. He rubbed his fingers anxiously across his lips. He stood quickly. I heard his knees pop. Then he walked past the wreckage of our car and stooped to lift something that shimmered brightly in the road. Then I saw it, too. It was the silver-plated pistol my father always carried in the car when we traveled.
The young woman stared at the pistol in the man's hand. "Whacha gone do?" the woman asked.
"Move!" he shouted at the woman. I crabbed backward from the edge of the road; I was really afraid of him then.
He stood for a long moment deciding. He glanced both ways down the long empty road. The young woman squealed and turned to run back toward his big black car. She turned and stood beside the open door with her hand pressed across her mouth. The man cocked the hammer on the pistol.
I heard it click--as solid as a lock snapping shut. My heart froze in my throat. I was young but I knew what my father's pistol could do: I had watched it shatter glass jugs from my father's well-placed shots, and, on a crisp autumn morning, drop a two hundred pound hog to its knees before a steaming washpot.
"Don't!" I shouted at the man.
The man jumped. Maybe he was scared, too. He looked at me. "Don't, mister," I said. "Don't hurt my momma." I rolled up onto my hands and knees. The hard gravel on the shoulder of the road dimpled my palms. He studied me carefully, then looked down at Mother. I thought he spent a long time thinking about what he must do. Mother hummed a tune that had been playing all week on the radio in our living room. The man uncocked the pistol before he dropped it into his coat pocket.
The man crossed the road in front of me and glanced down at me as he passed. The gravel crunched under the soles of his brown-and-white oxford shoes. I looked quickly away and pushed myself further from his car. When he reached the driver's door, he slid inside. "Hurry!" he said again to the young woman.
She shoved the guitar back upright and scrambled inside. The soiled quilt bunched up under her feet. The man slammed his door shut and hit the starter button roughly with his thumb. The engine groaned, then fired. The young woman looked over at me for the last time as the driver shifted into first gear. Then she closed the door as they sped away.
I cautiously pulled myself through the gravel until I reached Mother. She still rocked back and forth upon my father's chest, but with deeper, more agitated movements than she had earlier. My father's head rolled in my direction. I touched his huge, red hand. It felt like the chilled rubbery cap of a mushroom. His eyes were open, but had puddled into cold, black pools.
I heard a soft, thumping noise and turned to watch Hanna crawl though a crack under the front seat, which had been torn loose from its tracks. She pulled her Christmas doll behind her. She waddled over and sat beside me. Her gray bonnet had been twisted on her head. When I reached to straighten it, she slapped at my hand.
Hanna and I waited patiently beside our father, while the shrill, plaintive cries of a killdeer in a nearby field of cotton stubble arched neatly through the cold, green air. The bird screeched at us, as if through force it could finally be heard, then urgently raced away on some new mission.
It seemed as if we waited forever before help came. Then cars suddenly appeared on both sides of the road. People jabbered and tripped over themselves to glimpse or poke or caress. Someone in the crowd announced proudly that he had called the Law. Strangers stuck their bright red faces before mine and ordered me not to move with thick husky voices, like they were choking on milk, while others kept a safe, gawking distance between themselves and the wreck. Maybe they thought we were contagious, because they pressed their young children so tightly against their legs. "It happens just like that!" some old beetle-faced philosopher barked, loudly snapping her fingers to clarify the sweet brevity of life. I felt strangely excited and proud, like our family had done something clever enough to win respect from these strangers.
A young schoolteacher from Lazich brought Hanna and me from the cold into the backseat of her car. She couldn't touch us enough with her tender fingers. Her husband revved his car engine, and the warm air from the car heater caused my nose to run. The teacher reached over the front seat and touched my face with a soft, silk handkerchief. She grimaced when she lifted it away. "Jesus! Sweet Jesus!" she whispered. The handkerchief was stained with blood.
"Sorry!" she said. "Do you remember me, Aaron? I am Mrs. Forshey, from school..." She smiled.
I remembered. She taught the older children in fifth grade. "What's wrong with my daddy?" I asked.
Mrs. Forshey glanced outside the car window toward the wreck. Then she glanced at her husband. "It'll be OK," she said gently while patting my hand.
I heard a thin wail skip across the fields like a flat stone across water, then grow with startling intensity as an ambulance pulled up beside the wreck. The crowd had reluctantly parted to let the ambulance through, then tightly pulled back in upon itself in order to see.
I searched anxiously through the weaving legs of the crowd until I saw my mother crumpled in the gravel at the edge of the road. She didn't look real but more like something hastily daubed onto canvas. Someone had tucked his suit coat around her shoulders to keep her warm. Several men were working to free my father's pinned leg, while a fat man in dirty overalls struggled to lift the car with a crippled jack that slipped down one notch for every two it gained. He finally motioned for the pressing crowd to move back.
"I want out," I said to Mrs. Forshey.
"Me, too!" Hanna piped up in sweet, hot mimicry.
Mrs. Forshey shook her head. "We must get you to a doctor, Aaron," she said. Her admonishment would have worked on the schoolyard, but not today. I grabbed for the door handle, but Mrs. Forshey gently held my shoulder. "You can't walk," she said. I struggled to break free. Hanna burst into tears.
"I'll carry him back," Mr. Forshey said.
"No, let me."
Mrs. Forshey reluctantly placed me at Mother's side. I reached out and touched her elbow. "Momma?" I asked. She slowly turned her face in my direction, then back at the men struggling with the car jack. Unable to resuscitate the old realities and unable to break herself free, she hummed softly, something playful and dreamy, but to herself, while the cold evening breeze whistled musically across the broken shards of our car's windshield with a faint, mocking lamentation--like the uncertain resonance of an aeolian harp.
Mrs. Forshey knelt beside her in the gravel. "Your children are with us," she said, pointing back over her shoulder to her car. "We'll take care of them for you, Mrs. Woodleaf." She reached out to touch one of Mother's hands.
"I don't have children," Mother said with an odd shake of her head. The words rose from the roots of her throat and crystallized into feathery white blossoms as they spilled into the air.
Mrs. Forshey lifted me back up into her arms. I struggled again but more weakly than before. This time she pulled me close to her chest. "We're going now," she said firmly. Mother looked away.
When we reached the car, Mrs. Forshey eased me into the back seat with Hanna. Hanna pointed a tiny finger at my face.
"Don't!" I said. I touched the torn flesh along my cheek, but quickly jerked my fingers from the gritty, zippered skin.
The late winter light had seeped deep melon hues across the evening sky. Although kind adults protected me, I knew my father was dead. But I was only seven. I was too young to comprehend how his death, like Shawn's, would soon become another gooey, wormy marker among the eternal mysteries of the universe.
Hollis Drew (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he is gainfully unemployed.
InterText stories written by Hollis Drew: "Shooting Stars" (v6n5), "Paddlefish Sky" (v7n3), "Ox-Plum Road" (v8n1).
This story is based on the actual events of his life.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Hollis Drew.