Saturday, October 31, 2009
I haven't written some tales just for you guys in a while, so this Halloween weekend I'll be giving you two stories--one today and one tomorrow. As these things go, I'll be writing from the seat of my pants--making it up as I go along.
I offer to you two completely true tales (as true as the tail I was born with!) to confound the imagination. There is a sixth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is the middle ground between light and shadow - between man's grasp and his reach; between science and superstition; between the pit of his fears and the sunlight of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area called The Creepy Appalachia Zone.
Red Arlington's Conversion
Some remember it only because it happened on the coldest winter these parts had seen in many a long year. They remember it because their breath fogged and froze into tiny ice crystals that shattered on the ground as they waited on the banks of Big Creek down by Sawmill Hole where Junior Tarlington’s sawmill wheel churned up the silt. When the wheel was braked, it was a fine place for a river baptism. They remembered because it took six strong men wielding mattocks and seven-pound sledges to break through the foot of ice and the bonfire built on the side of the creek barely saved Pastor Granger’s fingers and toes from falling off. They remembered because it seemed only fitting that the good Lord deemed as mean a man as Red Arlington would have to nearly die submerged in the frigid water to come up a saved man, sputtering “Hallelujah” between chittering, clenched teeth.
But the family remembered for another reason. The story started months before when the killing frosts had only just settled. It’s the story of Red Arlington’s choice, which wasn’t really a choice at all. For who would chose to dance for eternity locked in the Devil’s sulphurous embrace?
By all accounts, Red Arlington popped out of the womb mean as a henless rooster. His momma took the weed and nearly died of it—worse case of milk fever the doctor had ever seen. Some said Red was raised on rattlesnake milk because of it, but the truth was it were the milk of a contrary nanny goat. Same difference some said. At seven years of age, he wrapped a hound’s tail in tarred straw and lit it afire. At fifteen, Lucy Hall disappeared after walking home with him—not that they proved anything but there were always whispers. Then there was the time they found him sitting on Joe Lawes’s corpse while frying up a rasher of bacon. He claimed he didn’t have nothing to do with the man dying and all, but that’s a tale for anther time. At any rate, the mean little infant grew into a mean child, and the mean child into a mean adult. There’s not enough space here to chronicle the sins of Red Arlington, but suffice it to say, he was a bad, bad man.
His folks had hoped his marriage, celebrated at the business end of his father-in-law’s rifle-gun, would calm him down a bit. But after his bride popped out a few babies, Red predictably turned to making corn likker. And he was no master of the distillery arts, just in it for the easy money that come from them Chicago men who cared not a whit Red’s still was hacked together from car radiators or that once in a while a dead possum or some brake fluid added a special zing to his product. No telling how many dead Yankees adorned the endless scroll of Red’s transgressions awaiting him in heaven.
He kept his still down near Granny’s Branch, down-creek from a few homesteads—which is to say the branch water wasn’t a pure as it could be, if you get my drift. The rotgut Red made, didn’t make him a kinder man and oft was the night his wife boarded the door up to keep him out. She’d sit covering the ears of his two babes while Red cursed a streak of filth like to wake the dead from their inconstant dreaming.
It was the night of the third killing frost, and the leaves on the mile-a-minute vines had wilted, turning greeny-grey as a corpse’s toenails. The moon was setting over Sol Messer Mountain, but only a sliver and not near enough to light the footpath Red stumbled across on his trip home from the still. The lower path was near level, cut into the side of a steep ravine—one misstep would carry a man down into the darkness, dark even in the light of day, that misshapen holler. He sang into the frosty morning, that singing voice of his a redeeming feature. But when his toe stubbed against a root, he cursed, “Goddamnit to Hell!”
And that were when it happened. Those mile-a-minute vines came to life and snaked up, wrapping themselves around old Red’s ankles. They twisted and warped, dancing like a thousand whipping copperheads and pulled Red down, down, down. He screamed, grabbing onto the roots, rocks and dirt. He clawed and scratched, blood bubbling from his split fingernails. There wasn’t no one to hear him cry as the vines tortured and dragged him. Dragged him down into the cold, dark holler.
And he thought for a moment, it was a mercy he passed out.
When Red came to, he smelled the smell of land-fish mushrooms growing all around him and he felt peculiar warm for such a cold night. He tried to move, but couldn’t as it seemed he was embraced by a pair of arms holding him still.
“Ah…” sighed a sibilant voice, dry and crinkly in his ears, but womanly in tone, “Your song and words are precious to me, dear man. I fear I’ve fallen quite in love with you. Won’t you come below and dance with me? Dance a waltz to the devil’s box?”
He felt dry lips caress his ear and smelled the stink of the grave on the breath of this woman spirit. In a flash of insight, he thought to fool her and said, “My lovely, of course I’ll dance a merry fiddle dance with you. I’ll dance the night long, but let me go say goodbye to my family. I’ll return tomorrow night early and we will run away together. On this you have my promise.”
She sighed and he felt her tongue on his cheek—warm and forked. And so she released him. Red woke again on the path, shaking and shuddering, vomiting and feverish—and so stumbled back to his home just as the sun was rising—thinking he’d escaped a terrible fate.
Red stayed away from his still, the next night and the next. Until his wife tired of his laying about the house and scolded him, telling him to get his lazy self a job or cut up some firewood so they’d have money and some warmth for the winter. Red, never one to take an honest job in exchange for easy money, made his way back to the still to set up for another run of moonshine. He slept there at the still until he finally had to make his way back home one night.
This time, Red took the middle footpath home—it was a more difficult path than the lower one, but he was loath to take the same way home he had the night he dreamed (for surely it was a dream?) of the devil woman. As he climbed up and around the switchbacks, he hummed to himself—more to keep himself company and ease his nerves than anything else. At one point, the rotten rock and screed gave way and Red stumbled to his knees hollering, “Jaysus-fucking-Christ on a cracker!”
And that’s when it happened again. It seemed as though the entire mountain fell under his feet and Red was swept down, down, down past the lower path and into the cursed holler. Again, he scrabbled and scraped, grabbing onto any passing tree branch, trying to stop his fall by churning his feet, but to no avail. He tumbled and spun, down, down, down—down into the dark holler.
And this time, he did not think it a mercy when his eyes closed.
When he woke, the she-demon had her arms locked around him, but facing him so he could see her face. She was powersome beautiful in an evil way with mischievous eyes and pointed ears. The smell of mushrooms, he remembered from last time, he knew now was her special perfume. She scritched his back with her razor-sharp nails and pressed her pointy breasts against him and said, “Though you do me wrong and lie to me, I can’t help my love for you, dear man. It was naughty of you to tell me you would return and then not. But your song and your words bewitch and please me. I cannot help myself. Won’t you please come below and dance with me? Dance a waltz to the devil’s box?”
Red gave a nervous smile and thought fast. “Oh, sweet lady, I did not do you wrong, I swear,” he said. “You see, I play a bit of fiddle myself and I was composing a song to your beauty. It took me all this time to get it right and I didn’t think it worthy for your beloved ears until just this night. I was on my way home to fetch my fiddle and return to you. With this song as a gift.”
She drew a little blood with her nails, stinging him like a mankiller wasp. Then she thoughtfully said, “I will allow you to go back and collect your fiddle, since I dearly would like to hear this tune you’ve wrought. But bring yourself back to me this next night or there will be Hell to pay, mark my words.”
And with that, Red found himself back on the middle path, sick as a bluetick and stumbling home.
Red stayed home as long as he could. He did not leave his house and peered fearfully out the windows when night fell. He slept in fits and starts throughout the day, until his wife became irritable with him being underfoot.
“Why don’t you go out and get a real job?” she pleaded with him. And normally Red would backhand her across the mouth, but he watched her and womankind warily now. Still, he wasn’t ready to do such a thing, so he eventually headed back to his still. This time he stayed even longer, but finally it began to snow. It was a terrible snow that fell that winter and this was the first taste of it—and Red knew he had to make his way home if only for shelter.
This time, he took the longest way home, the upper path. It was treacherous, icy and slick. Red, not normally a praying man, found himself singing church hymns as he made his way up the steep mountainside. Closer and closer to the top he came and as the path became more dangerous, he prayed. Prayed real hard. And when a boulder came crashing down, he hollered, “Oh, Sweet Jesus, save me!”
But this time, he did not fall and the mountain did not come crashing down on his head. Instead, his demon lover emerged from the mist, rising up from the dark holler like a virago, like the possessed spirit she was. She rose until she dwarfed the mountain, wailing and rending her demon garments.
“Damn, you, Red Arlington! Damn you to Hell! You done broke my heart and I no longer find your songs sweet. You’ll make music no more, swear.”
And just like that, she was gone.
Red Arlington never made music again, and he never allowed it in his house with the exception of shape-note singing. No devil’s boxes were allowed. He was baptized that January in the frozen creek, and proclaimed himself saved—his sins forgiven.
But just you be careful, mind you what you say, if you travel the low road on a fall night when the moonlight slivers through the trees. They say the devil waits out there for you in a handsome form, waiting to take you below. Down, down, down—to dance to the devil’s box.
I think I’ll dedicate this story to Pastor Jimmy—because I think he’d enjoy this churchy little cautionary tale. And it’s based on a story I collected from Friend Scott about one of their mutual relatives.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you the strange tale of Junior Mantooth’s Last Outing. It’s sort of an Appalachian zombie story. Based on truth. I swear. You can read it in the paper.