XV - Chile Willow
I HaVE KNOWN LONG NIGHTS BEFORE. LIKE WHEN I HaD STREP throat and couldn't sleep and every minute seemed a torment. Or when Rebel had been sick with worms, and I stayed awake worrying as he coughed and whined. The night I spent huddled on that boulder, though, was an eternity of regret, fear, and discomfort all jammed into six hours. I knew one thing for sure: this was my last camping trip. I jumped at every imagined sound. I peered into the dark, seeing hulking shapes where there were only skinny pines. I would've tossed every issue of National Geographic on a bonfire for two peanut-butter sandwiches and a bottle of Green Spot. Sometime near dawn, the mosquitoes found me. They were so big I might've grabbed their legs and hitched a ride to Zephyr by air. I was miserable, from my red-blotched bites to my growling belly.
I had plenty of time, between slapping at skeeters and listening for the sounds of footsteps creeping up on me, to wonder what was in the box that Mr. Moultry and Mr. Hargison had paid four hundred dollars for. Man, that was a fortune of money! If the Blaylocks were involved, it had to be something wicked. What were Mr. Moultry and Mr. Hargison planning to do with the contents of that boxi Something Mr. Hargison had said came back to me: They won't know what hit 'em until they're tap-dancin' in hell.
Whatever this was about, it was a bad enough business to be conducted late at night in the middle of the woods, and I had no doubt the Blaylocks would cut our throats-and maybe Mr. Moultry and Mr. Hargison would, too-to keep it a secret.
at last the sun began to rise, painting the sky pink and purple. I figured I'd better get moving again, in case the Blaylocks were somewhere close. Yesterday we'd been following the sun, and that had been afternoon, so I chose to head due east. I started off on aching legs, my heart hungry for home.
I figured I might be able to get to a high point and see Zephyr, or Saxon's Lake, or at least a road or a railroad track. On the hilltops, however, I could see only more woods. I did get a break, though, about two hours after dawn: a jet plane screamed overhead, and I saw its landing gears slide down. I changed course a few degrees, heading for what I hoped was the air Force base. The woods, though, seemed to be thickening up rather than thinning. The sun was heating up, the ground rough underfoot, and soon I was wet with sweat. The gnats returned, with all their brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins, and they swarmed around my head like a dark halo.
Soon I heard more jets shrieking, though I couldn't see them through the trees, and then I heard the dull whump! whump! whump! of explosions. I stopped, realizing I was near the bomb testing grounds. From the next ridge I could see dark plumes of smoke and dust rising into the sky to what I reasoned was the northeast. Which meant I was a long, arduous way from my front door.
My belly and the sun at its zenith told me it was high noon. I was supposed to have been home by now. My mother would start going crazy soon, and my dad would start warming up his whipping hand. What would hurt most would be admitting I wasn't as grown-up today as I thought I'd been yesterday.
I continued on, skirting the area where the bombs were dropped. The last thing I needed was to be greeted by a few hundred pounds of high explosive. I pushed through tangles of thorns that bit my skin and tore my clothes, and I gritted my teeth and took what was coming to me. Little panics kept flaring up inside me, my mind seeing rattlesnakes in every shadow. If ever I wished I could really fly, now was the time.
and then, all of a sudden, I emerged from the pine woods into a green, leafy glade. Sunlight glittered off the rippling water of a small pond, and in that water a girl was swimming. She must've not been there long because only the ends of her long, golden hair were wet. She was as brown as a berry, the water glistening on her arms and shoulders as she stroked back and forth. I was about to call to her, and then she flipped over on her back and I saw she was naked.
Instantly my heart jumped and I stepped behind a tree, more afraid to startle her than anything else. Her legs kicked blissfully, the small buds of her breasts visible above the surface. She wore nothing to cover the area between her long, sleek thighs either, and I was ashamed to be looking but my eyes were spellbound. She turned and slid underwater. When she came up again, halfway across the pond, she swept her thick wet tresses back from her forehead and flipped over once more, gazing up at the blue sky as she floated.
Now, this was an interesting situation, I reasoned. Here I stood, hungry and thirsty, covered with mosquito bites and thorn welts, knowing my mother and father were calling up the sheriff and the fire chief by now, and twenty feet in front of me was a shimmering green pond with a naked blond girl floating in it. I hadn't gotten a good look at her face yet, but I could tell she was older than me, maybe fifteen or sixteen. She was long and lean, and she swam not with the splashy giddiness of a child but with an elegant, easy grace. I saw her clothes lying at the base of a tree on the other side of the pond, and a trail led off into the woods. The girl dove under, her legs kicking, then she resurfaced and slowly swam toward her clothes. She stopped, her feet finding the slippery bottom. Then she started wading in toward shore, and the moment of truth was thrust upon me.
"Wait!" I called out.
She spun around. Her face turned red and her hands flew up to cover her breasts, and then she ducked down in the water up to her throat. "Who's therei Who said thati"
"I did." I came out, sheepishly, from my hiding-place. "Sorry."
"Who are youi How long have you been standin' therei"
"Just a couple of minutes," I said. I followed it with a white lie. "I didn't see anythin'."
The girl was staring at me with open-mouthed indignation, her wet hair crimped around her shoulders. Her face was illuminated by a spill of sunlight through the trees, and I looked beyond her anger at a vision of beauty. Which surprised me, because the power of her beauty hit me so hard and suddenly. There are many things a boy considers beautiful: the shine of a bike's paint, the luster of a dog's pelt, the singing of a yo-yo as it loops the loop, the yellow harvest moon, the green grass of a meadow, and free hours at hand. The face of a girl, no matter how well-constructed, is usually not in that realm of appreciation. at that moment, though, I forgot about my hungry belly and my mosquito bites and my thorn stings. a girl with the most beautiful face I'd ever seen was staring at me, her eyes pale cornflower blue, and I had the feeling of waking up from a prolonged, lazy sleep into a new world I had never realized existed.
"I'm lost," I managed to say.
"Where'd you come fromi Were you spyin' on mei"
"No. I... came from that way." I motioned in the direction behind me.
"You're tellin' a story!" she snapped. "ain't nobody lives up in them hills!"
"Yeah," I said. "I know."
She remained hunkered down in the water, her arms around herself. I could tell that the anger was gradually leaving her, because the expression in her eyes was softening. "Lost," she repeated. "Where do you livei"
"Oh, now I know you're tellin' a story! Zephyr's all the way on the other side of the valley!"
"I was campin' out last night," I told her. "Me and my friends. Somethin' happened, and I got lost."
I shrugged. "Some men got after us."
"are you tellin' me the honest truthi"
"I am, I swear it."
"all the way from Zephyri You must be worn out!"
"Kinda," I said.
"Turn around," she told me. "Don't you dare look till I say for you to. all righti"
"all right," I agreed, and I turned my back to her. I heard her getting out of the water, and in my mind I saw her naked from head to toe. Clothes rustled. In a minute or two she said, "You can turn around now." When I looked at her again, she was dressed in a pink T-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. "What's your namei" she asked, pushing her hair back from her forehead.
"I'm Chile Willow," she said. "Come on with me, Cory."
Oh, she spoke my name so fine.
I followed her along the trail through the woods. She was taller than me. She didn't walk like a little girl. She was sixteen, I figured. Walking behind her, I inhaled her scent like the aroma of dew on newly cut grass. I tried to step where she stepped. If I'd had a tail, I would've wagged it. "I don't live too far," Chile Willow said, and I answered, "That's good."
On a dirt road stood a tarpaper shack with a chicken coop next to it and a rust-eaten car hulk sitting on cinderblocks in the weedy yard. The place was even worse than the rundown house where Granddaddy Jaybird had lost his shirt playing poker. I had already taken notice that Chile's jeans were patched and ragged, and there were dime-sized holes in her T-shirt. The house she lived in made the poorest dwelling in Bruton look like a palace. She opened the screen door on squalling hinges and said into the gloom, "Mommai I found somebody!"
I entered the house after her. The front room smelled of harsh cigarette smoke and turnip greens. a woman was sitting in a rocking chair, knitting as she rocked. She stared at me with the same cornflower blue eyes as her beautiful daughter, from a face seamed with wrinkles and burned dry by hard work in the sun. "Throw him back," she said, and her needles never stopped.
"He's lost," Chile told her. "Was lost, I mean. Says he came from Zephyr."
"Zephyr," the woman said. Her eyes returned to me. She wore a dark blue shift with yellow needlework across the front, and she had on rubber flipflops. "You're a long way from home, boy." Her voice was low and husky, as if the sun had dried up her lungs, too. On a scarred little table near at hand was an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and half a cigarette still burning.
"Yes, ma'am. I sure would like to call my folks. Can I use your phonei"
"ain't got no phone," she said. "This ain't Zephyr."
"Oh. Well... can somebody take me homei"
Chile's mother plucked the cigarette from the ashtray, took a long pull on it, and set it back down. When she spoke again, the smoke dribbled from her mouth. "Bill's took the truck off. Be back directly, I reckon."
I wanted to ask how long "directly" might be, but that would be impolite. "Can I have a glass of wateri" I asked Chile.
"Sure thing. You ought to take off that shirt, too, it's wringin' wet. Go on, take it off." While Chile went back to the dismal little kitchen, I unbuttoned my shirt and peeled it away from my skin. "Done got yourself in some thorns, boy," Chile's mother said, her mouth leaking smoke again. "Chile, bring the iodine in here and doctor this boy." Chile answered, "Yes'm," and I folded my sweat-drenched shirt up and stood waiting for pleasure and pain.
Chile had to pump the water out of the kitchen faucet. Coming out, the water spat and gurgled. When it got to me, it was warm and tinged with brown and contained in a jelly glass with a picture of Fred Flintstone on it. I took a taste and smelled something foul. Then Chile Willow's face was near mine, and the sweetness of her breath was like new roses. She had a swab of cotton and a bottle of iodine. "This might hurt a little bit," she said.
"He can take it," her mother answered for me.
Chile went to work. I winced and drew in my breath as the stinging started and then deepened. as the pain progressed, I watched Chile's face. Her hair was drying, falling in golden waves over her shoulders. Chile got down on her knees before me, the red cotton swab leaving streaks of red across my flesh. My heart was beating harder. Her pale blue eyes met mine, and she smiled. "You're doin' just fine," she said. I smiled back, though I was hurting so bad I wanted to cry.
"How old are you, boyi" Chile's mother inquired.
"Twelve." another white lie rolled out: "I'll be thirteen soon." I kept looking at Chile's eyes. "How old are youi" I asked her.
"Mei I'm an old lady. I'm sixteen."
"You go to the high schooli"
"Went one year," she said. "That was enough for me."
"You don't go to schooli" I was amazed at this fact. "Wow!"
"She goes to school," the mother said, her needles at work. "School of hard knocks, same as I did."
"aw, Mom," Chile said; from her cupid's-bow mouth, two words could sound like music.
I forgot about the stinging. Pain was nothing to a man like me. as Chile's mother said, I could take it. I looked around the gloomy room, with its stained and battered sticks of furniture, and when I looked at Chile's face again, it was like seeing the sun after a long, stormy night. Though the iodine was cruel, her touch was gentle. I imagined she must like me, to be so gentle. I had seen her naked. In all my life I had seen no female naked but my mother. I had been in the presence of Chile Willow only a short time, but what is time when a heart speaksi My heart was speaking to Chile Willow in that moment, as she bathed my cuts and gave me a smile. My heart was saying If you were my girlfriend I would give you a hundred lightning bugs in a green glass jar, so you could always see your way. I would give you a meadow full of wildflowers, where no two blooms would ever be alike. I would give you my bicycle, with its golden eye to protect you. I would write a story for you, and make you a princess who lived in a white marble castle. If you would only like me, I would give you magic. If you would only like me.
If you would only-
"You're a brave little boy," Chile said.
From the rear of the house, a baby began crying.
"Oh, Lord," Chile's mother said, and she put aside her needles. "Bubba's woke up." She stood up and walked in the direction of the crying, her flipflops smacking the splintery floor.
"I'll feed him in a minute," Chile said.
"Naw, I'll do it. Bill's gonna be back soon, and if I was you, I'd put that ring back on. You know how crazy he gets."
"Uh-huh, do I ever." This was said under Chile's breath. Something in her eyes had darkened. She swabbed the last thorn scrape and capped the iodine bottle. "There you go. all done."
Chile's mother returned, holding an infant that wasn't a year old. I stood in the middle of the room, my skin screaming as Chile got off her knees and went back into the kitchen. When she came back, she was wearing a thin gold band on the third finger of her left hand. She took the baby from her mother and began to rock it and croon softly.
"He's a feisty thing," the older woman said. "Gonna be a handful, that's for sure." She went to a window and pulled aside a flimsy curtain. "Here comes Bill now. Gonna get your ride home, fella."
I heard the pickup truck clattering as it pulled up almost to the porch. a door opened and slammed. Then through the screen door came Bill, who was tall and slim and had a crew cut and was all of eighteen years old. He wore dirty jeans and a blue shirt with a grease stain on the front, and he had heavy-lidded brown eyes and was chewing on a match. "Who's hei" he asked, first thing.
"Boy needs a ride to Zephyr," Chile's mother told him. "Got hisself lost in the woods."
"I ain't gone take him to Zephyr!" Bill protested with a scowl. "It's hotter'n hell in that truck!"
"Where'd you goi" Chile asked, her arms full of baby.
"Fixed that engine for old man Walsh. and if you think that was fun, you got another think comin'." He glanced at her as he strode past toward the kitchen. I saw him look right through her, as if she wasn't even there, and Chile's eyes had deadened.
"You get any moneyi" the mother called after him.
"Yeah, I got some money! You think I'm stupid, I wouldn't get no money for a job like thati"
"Bubba needs some fresh milk!" Chile said.
I heard the faucet pumping slimy water. "Shit," Bill muttered.
"You gonna take this boy home to Zephyr, or noti" Chile's mother asked.
"Not," he answered.
"Here." Chile offered the baby to her mother. "I'll drive him, then."
"The hell you say!" Bill came back into the room, holding brown water in another Flintstones jelly glass. "You can't drive nowhere, you ain't got no license!"
"I keep tellin' you I ought to-"
"You don't need to do no drivin'," Bill said, and he looked right through her again. "Your place is in this house. Tell her, Mrs. Purcell."
"I ain't barkin' up nobody's tree," Chile's mother said, but she didn't take the infant. She sat down in her rocking chair, put the cigarette in her mouth, and gripped the knitting needles.
Bill drank down the brown water and made a face. "all right, then. Hell with it. I'll take him to that gas station over near the base. He can use the pay phone."
"That okay with you, Coryi" Chile asked me.
"I..." My head was still spinning, and the sight of that gold ring hurt my eyes. "I guess so."
"Well, you better take what I'm offerin' or I'll just kick your butt out the door," Bill warned.
"I don't have any money for the phone," I said.
"Boy, you're in damn sorry shape, ain't youi" Bill took the glass back to the kitchen. "You ain't gettin' none of my work money, that's for sure!"
Chile reached down into the pocket of her jeans. "I've got some money," she said, and her hand came out clutching a small red plastic purse in the shape of a heart. It was cracked and much-used, the kind of thing a little girl might buy at Woolworth's for ninety-nine cents. She popped it open. I saw a few coins inside it. "I just need a dime," I told her. She gave me a dime, one with Mercury's head on it, and I shoved it into my own pocket. She smiled at me, which was worth a fortune. "You'll get home all right."
"I know I will." I looked at the infant's face, and I saw he had her beautiful eyes of cornflower blue.
"Come on, if you're comin'," Bill said on his way past me to the door. He didn't spare a glance at his wife or baby. He went on out, the screen door slammed, and I heard the truck's engine snort.
I could not tear myself away from Chile Willow. In later years I would hear about the "chemistry" between two people, and what that meant; I would be told by my father about the "birds and the bees" but of course by then I would know all about it from my schoolmates. all I knew at that moment was a longing: to be older, taller, stronger, and handsome. To be able to kiss the lips of her lovely face, and crank back time so she didn't have Bill's baby in her arms. What I wanted to say to her, in that moment, was: You should've waited for me.
"Go on home where you belong, boy," Mrs. Purcell said. She was watching me intently, her needles paused, and I wondered if she knew what was in my head.
I would never set foot in this house again. I would never again see Chile Willow. I knew this, and I drank her in while I could.
Outside, Bill leaned on the horn. Bubba started crying again.
"Thank you," I told Chile, and I took my wet shirt and walked out into the sunlight. The truck was painted bilious green, its sides dented up, its body sagging to the left. a pair of red velvet dice dangled from the rearview mirror. I climbed into the passenger seat, a spring jabbing my butt. On the floorboard was a toolbox and coils of wires, and though the windows were rolled down, the interior smelled like sweat and a sickly sweet odor I later came to connect with miserable poverty. I looked at the house's doorway and saw Chile emerge into the light, cradling her baby. "Stop and get him some milk, Bill!" she called. I could see her mother standing behind her, in the musty gloom. It occurred to me that their faces were very much alike, though one had already been weathered by time and circumstance, probably a lot of disappointment and bitterness, too. I hoped Chile would be spared such a journey. I hoped she would never lock her smile away, and forget where she'd put the key.
"'Bye, now!" she said to me.
I waved. Bill pulled the pickup truck away from the house, and dust boiled up off the road between Chile Willow and me.
It was a mile or more until the pavement started. Bill drove in silence, and let me off at a gas station on the edge of the air force base. as I was getting out, he said, "Hey, boy! Better watch where you put your pecker." Then he drove away, and I stood alone on the hot concrete.
Pain was nothing to a man like me.
The gas station's owner showed me where the pay phone was. I started to put the Mercury-head dime into the slot, but I couldn't let go of it. It had come from Chile Willow's purse. I just couldn't. I asked the owner to let me borrow a dime, telling him my dad would pay him back. "I ain't no bank," he huffed, but he took a dime out of the cash register anyway. In another moment it was tinkling down into the pay phone. I dialed the number, and Mom picked up on the second ring.
My folks were there to pick me up in about half an hour. I expected the worst, but I got a rib-busting squeeze from my mother and my dad grinned and cuffed me on the back of my head and I knew I was in high cotton. On the drive home, I learned that Davy Ray and Ben had reached Zephyr together about seven this morning and Sheriff amory knew the whole story, that two masked men had bought something in a wooden box from Biggun Blaylock and then the Blaylocks had chased us through the forest. "The men with the masks were Mr. Hargison and Mr. Moultry," I said. I felt bad about this, because I recalled that Mr. Hargison had saved our skins from the Branlins. Still and all, the sheriff needed to know.
We passed the air Force base, its runways and barracks and buildings enclosed by a high mesh fence topped with barbed wire. We drove along the forest road, passing the turnoff to the house of bad girls. Dad slowed almost imperceptibly as we drove past Saxon's Lake, but he didn't look at it. The exact place where I'd seen the figure in the flapping coat was lost in summer growth. as soon as the lake was behind us, Dad picked up speed again.
I was lavished with attention when I got home. I got a big bowl of chocolate ice cream and all the Oreos I could eat. Dad called me "pal" and "partner" with just about every breath. Even Rebel almost licked my face off. I had been delivered from the wilderness, and I was okay.
Of course they wanted to hear about my adventure, and they pressed me to tell them more about the girl who had treated my thorn scrapes. I told them her name, that she was sixteen years old, and that she was as beautiful as Cinderella in that Walt Disney movie. "I do believe our pal's got himself a crush on her," Dad said to Mom, and he grinned. I said, "awww, I don't have time for any old girl!"
But I fell asleep on the sofa with a dime in my hand.
Before the sun set on Saturday afternoon, Sheriff amory dropped by. He had been to see Davy Ray and Ben; now it was my turn to be questioned. We sat on the front porch, Rebel sprawled beside my chair and occasionally lifting his head to lick my hand, while in the distance thunder grumbled amid the darkening clouds. He listened to my story about the wooden box, and when I came to the part about the masked men being Mr. Dick Moultry and Mr. Gerald Hargison, he said, "Why do you think it was them, Cory, if you couldn't see their facesi"
"'Cause Biggun Blaylock called the fat one Dick and I saw the cheroot Mr. Hargison threw away and that's what he smokes, the kind with the white plastic tip."
"I see." He nodded, his long-jawed face betraying no emotion. "You know, there are probably a lot of fellas around here who smoke cheroots like that. and just 'cause Biggun Blaylock called a man by his first name doesn't mean it was Dick Moultry."
"It was them," I said. "Both of them."
"Davy Ray and Ben told me they didn't know who the masked men were."
"Maybe they don't, sir, but I do."
"all right, then, I'll make sure I find out where Dick and Gerald were 'round about eleven last night. I asked Davy Ray and Ben if they could take me to where this thing happened, but they said they couldn't find it again. Could youi"
"No sir. It was near a trail, though."
"Uh-huh. Trouble is, there are an awful lot of old loggin' roads and trails cut through those hills. You didn't happen to see what was inside that box, did youi"
"No sir. Whatever it was, Mr. Hargison said it was gonna make some people tap-dance in hell."
Sheriff amory's brow furrowed. His black eyes held a spark of renewed interest. "Now, why do you think he'd say somethin' like thati"
"I don't know. But Biggun Blaylock would. He said he threw an extra one into the box."
"an extra whati"
"I don't know that, either." I watched lightning flicker on the horizon from sky to earth. "are you gonna find Biggun Blaylock and ask himi"
"Biggun Blaylock," the sheriff said, "is an invisible man. I hear about him, and I know the things he and his sons do, but I never see him. I think he's got a hideout somewhere in the woods, probably pretty close to where you boys were." He watched the lightning, too, and he wound the fingers of his big hands together and worked his knuckles. "If I could ever catch one of his sons at some mischief, maybe I could smoke Biggun out. But to tell you the truth, Cory, the sheriff's office in Zephyr is pretty much a one-man operation. I don't get a whole lot of money from the county. Heck," he said, and he smiled thinly, "I only got this job 'cause nobody else would have it. My wife's on me all the time to give it up, says I oughta go back into the house-paintin' business." He shrugged. "Well," he said, dismissing those thoughts, "a whole lot of people around here are scared of the Blaylocks. Especially of Biggun. I doubt I could deputize more than five or six men to help me comb the woods for him. and by the time we found him-if we ever did-he'd have known we were comin' long before we got there. See my problem, Coryi"
"Yes sir. The Blaylocks are bigger than the law."
"Not bigger than the law," he corrected me. "Just a whole lot meaner."
a storm was coming. The wind was in the trees. Rebel got up and sniffed the air.
Sheriff amory stood up. "I'll be goin' now," he said. "Thanks for helpin' me." In the fading light he looked old and burdened, his shoulders slightly stooped. He called good-bye to Mom and Dad through the screen door, and Dad came out to see him off. "You take care of yourself, Cory," he told me, then he and Dad walked together to his car. I stayed on the porch, stroking Rebel, as Sheriff amory and Dad talked a few minutes more. When the sheriff had driven off and Dad returned to the porch, it was he who appeared burdened. "Come on in, partner," he said, and held the door open for me. "It's gonna get bad out."
The wind roared that night. The rain pounded down, and the lightning was scrawled like the track of a mysterious finger over my hometown.
That was the night I first dreamed about the four black girls, all dressed up and with their shoes shined, who stood beneath a leafless tree calling my name again and again and again.
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