This is part of a serialized story I am writing and posting weekly. For the first installment, click here.
Many plots of land in the rural Mountain South had once been part of a big family farm, divided and doled out to daughters as they married off. Then, as factory work took over from farming as the prime occupation in these parts, landowners sold off little parcels just big enough for a house and a kitchen garden. It was a slow, organic process, marking the movements of each new generation with houses built and left, sometimes abandoned as children all moved away from the old homestead.
Nothing so wholesome had happened down in Poor Valley. Landon drove further away from the healthy artery of the state highway, moving people back and forth as they commuted to work, school, grocery store. Most of the houses down here, set on a flat patch next to the faded asphalt or further in: perched like vultures on a craggy ledge of the steep hill, most of these had never had so noble a beginning as something inherited or gifted, or peeled away from a grander estate that raised anything so honorable as livestock or food.
No, people had crept in here like feral dogs, squatting and furtively building mean homes, scrounging for ginseng, paw paws and other wild things to live on. For a brief time there had been a moonshiner king down in the holler. It was the closest thing to organized work these folk had ever done, tending the copper tubes and boiling corn liquor. Never a tribe to worry much over the safety of a limb or eye, many a Poor Valley shiner hobbled around boneyards of broken mason jars and buckets of mash less one of these.
Not that Landon had seen any of these apparitions himself; Mamaw told him stories of what she remembered from her girlhood. She was special, Landon’s grandmother; she had an unwritten diplomatic pass to every corner of Chuckey County. It was her legacy. Her mother before her had never shied away from folks others called unrespectable. They never did charity, these ladies, but Mamaw went into Poor Valley as a young girl at the skirts of her mother to trade for wild roots and herbs, things mountain people always had the knack for finding.
“You’ll get respect where you give it,” Mamaw always told Landon. “My Mama taught me that, and I’m teaching you. Remember it.”
Landon had no idea where he was going. He’d driven down here before, though never with his Mamaw…curious. She’d always deftly changed the subject when he’d asked to come here with her. In high school Landon had taken a drive or two through Poor Valley. The road looped back around between a tall ridge and a shorter one, eventually spitting the traveler back out in town, behind the only gas station there. It was as though the Valley didn’t want you to stay too long.
He was thinking on these things when the car lurched and his front right tire ran over something with a meaty crunch. What the fu…? he thought. He sat for a moment, brake pedal mashed down, both hands on the wheel, white-knuckled. He’d bounced a bit to the side of the road, enough that another car could get by if it wanted. He took his hands off the wheel and sighed. Guess I’ll get out.
He had to walk around the hood of the car to inspect what it was he’d run over. Even then it was hard to see; it had been knocked under the car. He stooped down to peer into the shadow, and had just caught a glimpse of a dog’s brown hind leg and tail when an old woman’s voice drawled from behind.
“You done run over my dog,” she said, then spit a stream of brown tobacco juice to the side. He straightened quickly, hands out as though to catch his balance.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t even see it!” he cried, his earlier bravado vanished. She watched him impassively. Two boys, wiry and grubby, darted out from the trailer house just behind the old woman. They came running up to the car, circling around Landon. He couldn’t tell their age. Eight, maybe? Twelve, if they were short for their age. One of them darted partway under the car and grabbed the brown, furry leg Landon had seen. He started to tug. The other boy piled in to help. They pulled the sad creature out from under the chassis. He was too amazed to help, or protest, or doing anything but gape.
The dog came with a smear of black, maggots tumbling from under its rotted hide. Its mouth was frozen in a grimace, its eyes long since picked away. Landon looked sharply at the old woman, who might have been accused of smiling, around the corners of her eyes. Her mouth remained stern.
“Dog’s been hard to play with for a while, now. T’won’t run, or nothing,” she said. Landon grinned uncertainly.
“Once they get the maggots like that, they ain’t useful for much,” he offered. He was rewarded with a gruesome grin, brown-stained teeth and tongue that snaked out briefly when she let out a short guffaw.
“Ain’t that the truth!” she said.
“Well, ma’am,” said Landon, “I’ll be going on.” She nodded, still grinning slightly. The boys scampered back behind her, whooping and running of behind the trailer house on the hill.
Landon got back in the car, moving like a man who was learning how. It was by far the spookiest thing to happen to him in years, since…well, since the last time he went down Poor Valley, now that he thought about it. He was unsettled by his maggot joke, too; it was unlike him. It was that joke as much as anything that made him realize, then, that he was not at home here. He drove on down the shadowed road, leaving the decaying dog and the old woman with her half-feral urchins behind.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll endeavor to answer each one. Stay tuned next week for the third installment.
Update: click here for Part III of Poor Valley Witch.