This is a long post. Bear with me; I’m trying something new.
I’m going to serialize a story I started years ago, when I was an exhausted new mother with only one baby at home, and I thought I’d never feel rested again in my life…but I digress.
Years and another baby have come along, (and still not enough sleep!) and I recently dug out this story about a little backwoods southern Appalachian witch. I wrote more to it, but I don’t think it was very good. So I’ve decided to do something special with this scrap of it, like a quilt square that has survived, tucked away at the bottom of a hope chest. It hasn’t been placed and pressed and bound to any other squares, yet.
So I’m posting the beginning of this story, Poor Valley Witch, and I’m going to write a little more on it here, on my blog, each week.
There will be mistakes, contradictions, plot holes and the like. I welcome your comments telling me where they are, asking me about characters, suggesting things. I welcome you to read on!
So, here it is, the beginning of Poor Valley Witch:
Landon was unsure why he found himself crossing the state highway onto Leesdale Road. He hadn’t intended on going to Poor Valley today. Leesdale wasn’t much of a road, anyway…a faded gray patch of asphalt that gave a halfhearted shrug up the little hill by the cemetery, and then fell down the other side and kept going on momentum and a “why not?” The average commuter passing by toward Knoxville could blink and miss it.
He hadn’t planned on driving his car down this used up country road today, but here he was. Sheila pushed him to it.
Landon hadn’t grown up in Chuckey County. He’d gone to private school in Knoxville, college in Maryland. But he’d spent every summer here, at his grandmother’s farm. The farm which, incidentally, was on the other side of the highway from Poor Valley. He’d always be in-between, not quite country and not quite city, and it gave him the unique perspective that came with being an outsider no matter what. It made him aloof.
He’d driven straight to church this morning from Knoxville, the first time in a while. He thought his Mamaw would be there, as she was most Sundays, but not this time. He’d stayed for services, anyway; he was too conspicuous in this tiny community to slip away unnoticed. Baptists were funny that way, at least around here: suspicious of any outsider, unwilling to bring people into the fold, yet constantly expecting you to try. Growing up Landon had witnessed a few outsiders—transplants from other places, usually New York—brought into the church, at first delighted at the hospitality of their new community. People around here were fierce about their church, proud that their Papaw’s Papaw had been a member there. The outsiders—for that’s what they stayed, until they left—felt welcome at first.
Then they slowly began to realize that what seemed polite was really condescension, and that this church had pulled them in to make them feel their own foreignness. The preacher railed against Catholics (idol worshipers) and Jews (Christ killers.) He lumped any other sect with nonbelievers–which really meant Satan worshipers, after all…it was both a farce and exhausting to Landon. Other places, outside places with different terrain and weather and ways, were Babylon. Florida was Sodom and Gomorrah.
Landon was accepted, mostly, because his grandmother lived here and went to church here. His father had grown up here, too, although he rarely visited anymore. Landon suspected it was because he went into the world and found Chuckey County lacking. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure why he came back…but he loved his grandmother. She was the best family he had.
Sheila added a new level of bigotry this morning after services. The preacher had been cryptic, warning against sin by association and that God-loving folks could still go to Hell by way of doing nothing in the face of evil. I’ve missed something, thought Landon. It was in the vague nature of the sermon. Usually there was a clear theme, a stated enemy. This morning’s service left him uneasy.
He had planned to go straight to his grandmother’s house after church, but Sheila caught him at his car. She had a baby balanced on one hip. Her bleach blonde hair and heavy makeup grated him; he had little taste for small town debutantes. Probably because of Sheila, actually; they had dated his seventeenth summer. She’d been spoiled and small-minded then, as she was now. She married her equal, the son of the town’s used car dealer. She’d done well enough for the local hierarchy.
“Here to see Mamaw?” she asked him, bouncing the baby and smiling up at Landon. It irritated him, how she called his own grandmother that; it sounded derogatory out of her mouth. He nodded noncommittally.
“She ain’t been to church in a month of Sundays,” said Sheila. “I guess we ain’t good enough for her.” That was a new one on Landon. His grandmother had always been a regular at church. She had enough local-blood status here that she could miss a Sunday or two with no ridicule, as she did, but she still came. She didn’t get into the anti-outsider fervor, but she knew all the people here and liked some of them outside church, so she came. Sometimes she made a coffee cake for after services.
“Why would you say that, Sheila?” asked Landon. He tried to keep the scorn from his voice, but people here were quick to pick up on it—especially Sheila. She’d felt slighted when he’d broken up with her, and apparently held a grudge ten years later.
“On account of how she stood up in church and insulted our preacher. For no reason. Because he was doing his Godly duty, warning us of that witch down in Poor Valley.” Landon thought she was using the word—witch—as an insult, a way of cursing in front of the baby.
Then Sheila said this: “You tell your Mamaw, that old…old…meddler, to stay away from the witch. Bad things is going to happen Landon, to that witch and anyone associated.” Landon was slower to anger than Sheila, but of course she hit his sore spot. As she’d meant to.
Landon was a river that ran deep, as his mother said. He was not loud, he was not overly demonstrative, and he was not dramatic. What he was, though, was loyal. And now, what he was was angry. And so, instead of shaking his finger in her heavily made-up face, instead of blustering on about small-minded assholes in this miserable stop-through that was a town; town, hell; it was a trailer park with medieval attitudes…instead of saying these things, he said, thoughtfully,
“There’s a witch in Poor Valley, huh? I think I know just who you mean. I’ve been meaning to pay her a visit.” And he opened his car door, got inside, shut the door on Sheila’s powdered, surprised face, and backed out of the gravel parking lot.
And that was how he’d come to decide that his grandmother could wait. He was going to drive to Poor Valley. He wouldn’t necessarily go to find anyone in particular. It was enough that the church members milling about the parking lot could see him pulling on to the road that paralleled Sycamore Street, where they all stood, staring at him. It was creepy, even for this community, knots of people suddenly silent, stilled in mid-conversation to mark his path. They could see his car pass behind a row of tall pines, beyond which was the state highway and then Leesdale Road. They did not see him pass back out of the pines to turn toward his grandmother’s farm. They all knew where he’d gone.
For Part II of Poor Valley Witch, click here.