Authors: Charles Frazier
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Thrillers, #General, #Historical
This day, Luce’s next history stop was a magic place in the river where a Cherokee fish weir still showed its downstream V during times of low water, and where Luce believed she would always catch a fish. Which she demonstrated by cutting a springy pole from a beech and using a string and hook from her pocket and rock bait she’d taken from a secret place in a creek a ways back that old Stubblefield had shown her one day on a walk together, acting like he was giving her the combination to a safe full of money, saying only three people knew the spot and two of them were dead. The result, a rainbow trout she pulled out of the water and showed the children, to no particular impression, despite its brilliant agonizing in the sunlight. She worked the hook from its lip and let it go back into the history it arose from.
Later, after struggling up to a gap hardly anybody crossed anymore, she showed them a rock cairn where she said people used to mark the end of their climb by adding a stone. It stood knee-high and spilled in a circle six feet across. Luce told the children that if they dug into the pile to the earliest stone, it might well reach back as deep into time as the hairy cavemen who dressed in furs and had enormous feet.
Farther on, along a stretch of trail Luce had walked at least a dozen times, she noticed something new to her. A stout old oak partly screened by younger trees, the first four feet of its trunk hollow and the crown nearly dead. What Luce first thought was a low limb, much thicker than her torso, ran parallel to the ground and then made an unnatural upward right angle. At the L, a knob of scar.
Luce went to the tree and raised her arm and cupped her hand on the knob. She realized the odd limb was really the deformed trunk and knew this was a trail tree. One day two or three hundred years back, in a different world, somebody bent down a sapling and torqued it in the middle and sliced it partway through at the angle and tied it to a stake in the ground with withes or ligaments to make it grow that way forever. When the cut healed, the scar kept growing, like an old man’s nose, and it was where the nose pointed that mattered.
Go this way
, was the message nobody had received for a long time.
—Where does it aim? Luce asked the children. Maybe to a sweet spring, or a rock overhang sheltering a good camp where we might find an ancient fire ring, scribbles of lost languages, or drawings of animals on the rock. Maybe a cave of treasure hidden from Spaniards in the days of conquistadores marauding for gold.
The children stood within themselves, without apparent interest. Luce said she was ready to follow the tree’s suggestion, if neither of them had a better one of their own. She threw her right arm forward, her forefinger matching the way the tree pointed.
The children took the lead and walked straight through general hardwoods and clumps of laurels, galax and its dank body smells. Luce came behind, keeping her eyes open, though nothing presented itself worth deforming a tree to indicate. Following the line, they crossed a creek and climbed to a shelf of land, a dry place with hickory and locust and a few pine trees. Open woods.
Then down into a wet cove. Dense old-growth hemlocks. The limbs of the big trees lapped over one another, shutting out the light. All Luce could smell were the astringent needles and wet rot. Dolores and Frank kept marching forward under the trees. The light was filtered and green, and their footsteps fell silent in the dead needles that lay a million years deep. Dodging giant fallen trunks, nurse logs sprouting moss and ferns and new hemlock saplings from their own brown decay. The children kept to the line. They went downslope until the contour of the land leveled into a clearing. But not really a clearing, a blank space in the world. They stopped short at the edge of a drop.
As long as she could remember, back to the freedom of childhood, Luce had believed that if you walk in the deep woods long enough, you’ll inevitably come to places of mystery or spirit or ritual. But she hadn’t ever found a place like this, and she hadn’t expected to feel so scared when she did. It was a perfect round hole down through the earth. A deep cylinder of still air encompassed by dark rock. Not a lot farther across than you could throw a softball. Far down inside, black liquid lay still as the face of a mirror. The hole was set about with hemlocks, their trunks dark and massive. The children went right to the lip and looked down, and Luce felt scared and reached for them, expecting them to flinch, but they didn’t. They let her hold their clammy little hands with crud in the creases.
She walked them all the way around the pit’s lip, looking for a slightly sunken track through a corridor of younger trees. If the place had once been a quarry, wouldn’t there be signs of an old road or rail bed for hauling out the shattered rock? Spalls and shards scattered on the ground. But Luce found no sign of disturbed ground and no obvious break in the circle of tree trunks, so stout that many of them must have begun life back before the flood of white people into the landscape. The rock inside the hole was free of half-round drill marks or raw grey jags sharp as knapped flint from blasting. Nothing but serene smooth stone with lichen and a few ferns growing in nooks and crannies.
Luce let go of Dolores’s hand and picked up a rock the size of a grapefruit and lobbed it out into space, and then grabbed back the hand. The rock arced and fell and fell and fell and then broke the surface of the black liquid with no splash, like there was forty-weight down there. She guessed her rock would keep falling slowly through the thick liquid in total darkness nearly forever. People shoveling wells or outhouse holes or graves, when they got past knee-deep, joked about digging to China. But however deep the black hole went, Luce figured China wasn’t near weird enough to be where it came out.
Luce realized she hadn’t said a word for some time, so she tried to devise commentary. Something about young warriors coming here alone to spend the night and test their courage. Or maybe ceremonies with big bonfires and drums and dancing. That’s what the tree aimed people toward. What she didn’t say was that the message of the tree was surely
Don’t go this way
. And the sign that meant
had been lost to time.
THAT NIGHT IN BED
, WLAC playing low and not helping much, Luce couldn’t sleep for thinking about the black hole. She didn’t spend a second wondering what creatures lived down there. One look and she knew nothing lived there. Life would only be in the way. The black hole was before life and beyond life. If you dipped a ladle of that water and drank it, visions would come so dark you wouldn’t want to live in the world that contained them. You’d be ready to flee toward the other darkness summed up in death, which is only distant kin to the black hole and the liquid it cups. A darkness left over from before Creation. A remainder of a time before light. Before these woods and these mountains and the earth and even the sun, there was a black hole filled with black water. The black held no reference to the green world around it. And what did the green world mean if the black was and forever had been?
It was a question Luce could not immediately answer. But she knew the black hole pulled at you. You stand up to it, or you go down. If the children found their way back there alone, they would drop themselves into it like stones, and fall and fall into the dark. It was altogether their kind of place, and the job that had been put on Luce’s shoulders was to keep them from the lip of rock and the face of black water below. Upon which God does not move, not even a quiver.
In the hovering between sleep and wakefulness, lucid but dreaming, Luce’s mind got away from her, and all kinds of empty shit she had meant to put entirely behind her forever swam up and lived in her head again.
IN TOWN, PICK UP
the phone to make a call, and a woman’s voice would say, Number, please? The owner of the phone company could conjure warts using stump water and a mumbled formula of words. Also, he owned the only tennis court within fifty miles, a rectangle of red clay covered in weeds and fenced with rusting sagging chicken wire, which he had built in the glowing decade of the twenties, when he was also in his twenties. The whole phone company involved fewer than a dozen employees. When you went to pay the monthly phone bill, you walked through the dark upstairs hallways of what had been a hotel back in World War I times but was now nearly abandoned. The oiled strip floors creaked against the nails. At night, three-fourths of the milk-glass light fixtures remained dark, and just one door had light behind it. Inside the room, across one entire wall, a rat’s nest of colorful wires and silver sockets and silver plugs with cylinders of black Bakelite to grip them by. Every telephone subscriber around the lake and down the valley and up the coves had a hole, which meant somewhat fewer than seven hundred holes. If 7 wanted to talk to 30W, it was a matter of making the connection, the correct plug into the proper socket.
Day shift and evening, there were two operators. Graveyard shift, one. They mostly looked like the tough young women in black-and-white detective movies. In the corner of the room, a sort of illicit sagging cot covered with a patchwork quilt for the night girl’s naps. Graveyard was an easy job, if you didn’t mind the hours. Almost nobody used the phone after ten, but you never knew. Had to sleep light. Shady business during the deeps of night. Emergencies or trysts or threats to be conveyed. Sad lonely girl sleeping with one eye open at three in the morning anticipating some sad call.
For a time, a few years after high school, that graveyard girl was Luce. She lived in a room over the drugstore, beside the movie theater, so on her way to work the daring late-night moviegoers from the second showing would be coming out onto the sidewalk under the bare glaring marquee bulbs. Main Street’s three stoplights flashing yellow. On Sundays and Wednesdays and Fridays and Saturdays, when the features changed, a guy Luce barely remembered from school would be lofting a long pole with a pliers jaw on its far end to take down the red letters saying the name of tonight’s movie and to put up the ones announcing tomorrow’s. Happy when two or three letters in a row from the previous title worked for the next, like women washing dishes getting to an unused knife or teaspoon and calling it a hallelujah. When Luce came out the street-level door to walk two blocks to work, the night owls stood yawning and checking their watches and thinking of bed, and the letter guy got to watch her walk away. Probably the high point of his evening.
Luce didn’t mind the late shift. It gave her a great deal of freedom. She usually got two or three hours of sleep after midnight, and at eight she went back to her room and slept a few more and then had the afternoon and the evening to fill however she wanted. For example, the grand little Carnegie library with steep steps to the double front door. Inside, high ceilings and tall windows and full bookshelves and a stern tiny librarian who always wore black and peered through her spectacles in judgment at your choice of book to see if it was worth anybody’s time or if you were a foolish and suspect person to be wanting to take it home with you. Those years, nearly all Luce read came from the travel section, and for a while she couldn’t decide whether
Around the World on a Bicycle
was the best thing ever written.
Despite the librarian’s disapproval, Luce read a great number of westerns, such as
Wanderer of the Wasteland
, and planned one of these days to get on a bus and head out there. Amazingly, the one road running right through town went all the way to anywhere you wanted to go. From her study of library atlases, Hinton, Oklahoma, seemed like it ought to be a fine town for her, though that opinion was based on absolutely nothing but how well the empty spaces fell around it when you looked at its dot in relation to other dots and the web of roads spreading across the whole continent.
Then one day Luce went up the street to pay the power bill for her room and saw a government topographic map of her immediate landscape framed on the wall. It came as something of a revelation. She had to study awhile to place herself in the quadrangle. When she found the town, it was a red speck at the edge of a thin blue slice cut into great overwhelming swaths of mountain green in various shades. Thin black contour lines crowded dense in waveforms to represent how steep and complex the mountains stood all around. Below the dam, the valley lines spread wide apart and the flat farmland was a wedge of palest green. A blue river wiggled down the center of the valley and off the page, spilling over the edge of the world into blank space.
A tiny island in the vast sea is what Luce thought the town looked like. The map that described her entire range rested on the wall more like art than information. And Luce took it as a clue to why she had never left, that being one of the big questions in her mind during her time as an operator.
LUCE’S RAPIST WAS A YOUNGISH MAN
, and married. Mr. Stewart. Luce knew him well. He had been one of her high school teachers. Fresh out of college back then. Luce, like most of the girls, thought he was cute and sort of funny. Mr. Stewart taught chemistry, not at all Luce’s best subject, so she settled for an easy B in his class.
There wasn’t any question in Luce’s mind what had happened. He came in awfully late for paying his bill. And it was clear he had confusing expectations. He smoked, nervous and abrupt. Flirted a little, talking about how much prettier he thought she was now in comparison to high school, and yet how pretty she was when she was seventeen. If Mr. Stewart had not been married, Luce might have gone out with him. He was no more than six years older. No big deal. Go to a movie. A football game on Friday night. But Mr. Stewart was not single, and that was that.
He took a final long drag on his cigarette and dropped it to the floor. Suddenly he was reaching and grabbing and pulling at her. Then pushing her across the room to the narrow cot, where it was all yanking at her clothes and groping. Then grabbing her wrists, and his weight on her. She distinctly remembered shouting,
. Over and over. Maybe she even screamed it, but who would have heard? And she tried to shove him off her, but he was so urgent. She turned her face aside to keep him from kissing her. She refused to cry for the moment it took him to be done.