Being a loooong tale of the botanical meets the mechanical...
by David F. Darby
It was around this time last year, it might have been All Hallows Eve, I don't recall exactly, but I do remember the days were growing shorter and the crisp night air was just beginning to produce the occasional frost, especially in the valleys and hollows.
On this late afternoon, well before the Sun had left the sky, I was poking my way down the mountain path from my house to the little valley of Caney Creek below. I told myself that I was going down to check the condition of the young fruit trees I had planted in the Spring to see if the mulch was still in place; if the deer had browsed the young growing branches too much; was the protective tape I had placed around the trunks in good order? But, in truth, I really just wanted the chance for one more Autumn traipse through the deep woods to see the squirrels scuttling frenetically through the leaves as they gathered in even more acorns than they could possibly use; to witness the last blaze of color from the maples, hickories, hawthorns, and poison ivy before their leaves would fly in the next Autumn storm; to kick up, perhaps, the roving flock of wild turkeys that had scavenged through the oak leaf litter all summer long.
As I descended the mountain -- you outlanders would call it a hill, I guess because you can climb our roads and highways in top gear -- the shadows grew longer and the boulders and juniper trees darkened in the failing light. A slight chill rose from the valley as my footsteps traced the last turn from the steep path toward the little meadow just above the valley floor. I buttoned my jacket as I stopped to survey the scene before me. A barred owl called from somewhere across the valley, "Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo; hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-aw."
"Hoo-aw!" I purred loudly in my best owl voice. She answered in kind.
I was not concerned with the approaching darkness as the clear dusk sky promised a full moon that I knew would provide illumination for the path home. The small flashlight in my pocket could fill in the blanks if necessary.
The deer had not munched the young apple and pear trees too badly, but the handiwork of the field mice was something else. They had managed to find or chew rifts in the protective tape I had spiraled around the young trunks and had stripped the bark clean on a number of trees, girding and killing them. One wouldn't think of these furry little quadrupeds as Public Enemy No. 1 to juvenile fruit trees, but they are. They love the smooth, tender young bark and gleefully chew it to shreds for the moisture it contains. Thirteen of the forty-eight trees I had set out those months before were dead and the health of several more had been seriously compromised. I replaced the tape as best I could and scooped mulch up around some of the lesser wounded trees. I was practicing this kind of sylvan triage when the owl called again, a little closer now.
"Hoo-aw," I intoned, but this time she did not reply.
It had grown dark by the time I finished, but the Moon had risen above the ridge on the East and now flooded the landscape with a cold ghastly light that was actually quite bright. I could see land features a quarter... a half-mile in the distance. As I walked along, the woods assumed a darkness punctuated by the blackness of the junipers and accentuated by the twisted, grey, shining, bare oak branches.
I had determined not to follow the path back up the mountain, but instead to scramble up the little hollow that drained the forest on the south side of our hundred acres. I passed by the beaver pond at the head of the meadow and turned to meet the jumble of mossy dolomite boulders that began abruptly at the mouth of the hollow. I began hopping and climbing up the boulder-strewn ravine which, in true Ozark fashion, was mostly dry, just a little pool here and there where the water perks and seeps out of the dolomite canyon walls. After heavy rains this little hollow turns into a miniature gorge as a sustained torrent of water cascades down the rugged defile tumbling logs, boulders, and the occasional dead cow or discarded tractor tire with it.
It was quite dark where the grey rock walls closed in and I had switched on the flashlight poking a beam of light into the darkest recesses where even the pale moonlight was not admitted. It would not be convenient to meet up with a bear or bobcat, or, more likely, a skunk in the dark hollow, as they would probably mistake my intentions of merely passing through their domain for some act of aggression.
The owl called again much farther away this time in the valley below. I did not answer. I planned to leave the hollow and sashay up through the woods to meet a little road which I knew would take me back to my lane and to the warmth of my family and home. The road I had in mind was once the ridge road that connected our village of Hilda, now just a few houses dotted along the highway, to the former village of Hercules, which, was now only a remote wilderness farmstead where my neighbor and fellow MG enthusiast, Jeb Kissee, lived with his family. The road up which our forebears had coaxed yellow pine logs out of the woods with their mules and tractors climbed up from the valley floor and skirted the edge of the forest to connect with the main highway some three miles from the Kissee farm. Along its course it bent past the old Blair Ridge Cemetery, a lonely little place where rested the souls of those who had settled this area some one hundred and thirty years before. The weather-worn legends on the tombstones bore witness to the dozen or so families whose names were synonymous with the deep oak-hickory forests, cedar glades, and clear, spring-fed streams of this compartment. I would pass by the little cemetery on my way home tonight and then find the lane to my house just before the old road joined the pavement of the highway.
I chose to shinny up a large juniper log lying precipitously across a great slab of rock below the steep South wall of the hollow. This log was the corpse of a grand old red cedar tree that had come down under a wet, heavy snow load after a late winter storm two Februarys ago. I grasped its smooth surface and began pulling myself up. I clinched the small flashlight in my teeth as I shinnied and crawled along the silvery trunk in the moonlight. While negotiating my way around a protruding limb, the Vibram-clad sole of my right boot slipped and I half fell from the log. As an involuntary gasp sprang from my mouth, so too did the flashlight. I watched as it seemed to float in the cold air before my face for a moment and then the next instant it was clattering amid the moss-covered boulders of the canyon floor beneath. One more little crow-hop from a rocky ledge and it extinguished itself in a pool of water below. Oh well, I would remember where it was and try to return for it some sunny morning on my way down to the valley.
I pulled myself back onto the log and scrambled up to the ledge above. I was out of the hollow and could see rather well in the bright moonlight that flowed through the forest all around me. I traipsed along, forgetting the fruit trees and forest animals as the wind picked up a bit. It had a cold edge to it and I tugged my hat down more tightly hoping to keep my ears warm. There were no more sounds from the forest save for the rustling of dried leaves on the nighttime breeze and the occasional scurry of some small, unseen bird or mammal surprised by my passage.
I was daydreaming of the mechanical chores that faced me when I returned home. Driving one of the old MGs daily while maintaining the other always generated a laundry list of things to do. There were oil changes and tune-ups to perform plus the clutch job for the MGA that I had been postponing; and then the elective projects, like replacing the seat leathers or the battered side-curtains if one could only scrape together the appropriate sum of money at the right time. I was musing away in this manner when I was suddenly brought up short by a noise and movement ahead. A large blackjack oak branch, weakened, no doubt, by some internal parasite or other strife suddenly snapped from its trunk in the growing wind and came crashing to the ground. As it fell, it disclosed an irregular rank of grey and white shapes standing and leaning about a swell of earth just ahead. A shiver ran up my spine as I beheld the back side of the Blair Ridge Cemetery. I chuckled at my foolishness and yet some inexplicable feeling -- not quite fear, but more the recognition of the presence of some unknown entity -- gripped me as I scanned the lonely gravestones reposing in the glowering light of the Moon while the oak and hickory branches danced and swayed in the nighttime wind.
I knew that somewhere nearby stood the ruins of the old Blair Ridge Church, now reduced to just a few foundation stones and a fireplace of hand-cut limestone, the same limestone so carefully cut, inscribed, and placed at the head of a resting loved one in the little cemetery. Although no one had been buried there in years, it was still a favorite neighborhood picnic site. On bright Sunday afternoons in the Springtime, the adults would nap on their checkered tablecloths after a dinner of cold fried chicken and potato salad while the youngsters would gather larkspurs, chase butterflies, and try to trace the weathering surnames that they knew so well from the silent stone slabs standing in the graveyard. Tonight, in the mounting wind and cold moonlight, those happy days seemed to me but an illusory daydream. Had they ever really happened?
I am not superstitious, but the growing unrest I felt caused me to detour around the cemetery, past the church foundation and to the rocky one-lane road ahead. I would still have to pass by the front of the graveyard, but at least now I was on the road and could hasten my steps the mile or so toward home where my family would be awaiting my return.
I had only gone a few steps when an owl exploded from a dark juniper on my left. Its soft wings buffeted the evening breeze as it disappeared into the blackness of the forest. A single downy feather from its breast floated down the wind in the moonlight and fell to earth at my feet. As I stooped to retrieve it the crunching sound of something moving along the gravel road behind me reached my ears. I spun to see -- nothing, but then -- the sound again! I half-crouched in the darkness and strained my eyes down the road. There! Just beyond a gentle bend in the road something was slowly moving. My heart pounded as I peered into the darkness to see what it might be. Through the bare limbs and twigs around the bend moonlight glinted from shiny surfaces as the monster approached. As it turned the bend toward me I gasped to see what appeared to be an old MG saloon, slowly, silently gliding straight toward me!
It bore no light save the cold moonlight reflecting from its glass and brightwork. In the night I could not discern its color. It could have been black, green, blue; I couldn't tell, it was just very dark. It moved silently and eerily forward. There was no engine sound -- only the sounds of gravel crunching under its tires and the wind, now steadily blowing. It seemed to drift along on the breeze toward me. I was frozen in terror and awe. My hair stood on end as it neared, but I could make no move to escape. I opened my mouth, but uttered no sound.
I stood beside the road mesmerized and transfixed by this sheet metal phantom as it pulled up alongside me and stopped. I watched my hand reach for and grasp the rear door handle. The handle was cold to the touch yet felt reassuringly real. My mind was racing but I was beginning to calm down a bit as my powers of logic struggled to take over. I tried to reason that an old MG in this lonely place could only belong to me or my neighbor, Jeb, who lived on this road. I knew it wasn't mine, so it must be his. Thus I reasoned as I pulled the door open and slid across the leather of the rear seat. I shut the door softly just as the car began to pull slowly forward again. It was so quiet! I leaned forward to thank the driver for stopping to pick me up when I realized that the car was empty! The front seat was absurdly vacant as the car crept slowly down the road. The moonlight played off the polished walnut burl instrument fascia. The chrome trim of the steering wheel winked in the darkness. In fear and amazement I slumped back in the seat as the vehicle maintained its excruciatingly slow pace.
An eternity later as my fevered mind raced, the car, a Z series Magnette from the 1950s, slowly turned a slight bend in the road and came to rest in the moonlight directly in front of the gaping iron gate of the Blair Ridge Cemetery. It stopped and seemed to settle into the roadbed. I waited a second or two, carefully pulled the door handle open, and stepped out. I slowly backed away from the brooding hulk of glass and chrome and sheet metal, and into the open graveyard. I suddenly heard gasping and panting sounds coming from the first gravestone. I almost shrieked out when I recognized my friend and neighbor Jeb Kissee. It was apparent he was badly winded as he leaned against the tombstone huffing and panting in an attempt to catch his breath.
"Jeb," I said, "Don't go near that MG. There's something wrong with it!"
"I know," Jeb gasped, "I've been pushing it for the last mile and a quarter!"
Inspired by a traditional tall tale from the Arkansas Ozarks.
David Darby is a fourth-generation Ozarker who still walks the hills and hollows. He drives and sometimes pushes his MGs through the White River Valley of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.
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David F. Darby -- New Albion End -- White River Valley -- Missouri -- USA
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