Excerpt from the novel Witches on the Road Tonight © 2012 by Sheri Holman, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.
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The hearse’s headlights rasp the dark as they speed along an unfamiliar road, scattering rabbits and turning the night-grazing deer to statuary. The windows are down, the radio off. They pass empty fields and glassy obsidian ponds that float upon their gauze of reflected clouds, repeating pearls of moon. They ride for miles in this hushed, rolling darkness, not talking, Wallis trying hard not to think about her mother greeting the guests—You know Eddie, always unpredictable, that’s what we love about him—sucking the ice cubes of her third drink to delay pouring herself a fourth. Wallis has failed her mom but the paved road gives way to dirt and there is the music of cracked gravel and the night-sweet smell of honeysuckle. She lets her body relax until her shoulder brushes Jasper’s. The ride has softened him, too, he doesn’t lean into her but he doesn’t flinch away.
About ten miles out of town, Eddie pulls the car onto the side of the road and cuts the engine. There is still the aroma of honeysuckle, but now it is accompanied by orange and brown trumpets, sweetly rotting into the decay of swamp. They’ve taken the back way, which is why she didn’t know where they were. In front of them is a rusted NO TRESPASSING sign hung on a chain across a path. Her father cuts the headlights and they are plunged into darkness.
“The trains have always run by this swamp,” he says, and his voice hangs disembodied. “Twice a day and twice a night, they’ve been coming by for years. Once, long ago, an old conductor rode this route, a bitter, gaunt old man. He had no wife, he had no child. His whole life was this trip, up and back, up and back, hauling freight. Nothing had ever happened to him—he’d lived a tight, ordered, solitary life, and now he was close to retirement. I suppose there are some men who can slip through life without a single tragedy, but mostly we don’t like to hear about them. We like our stories to be full of bad luck and undeserved misfortune, don’t we? So here’s this old conductor, on the verge of retiring when, suddenly, late one night, he spies a bundle left right in the middle of the tracks. Oh no, he thinks. It can’t be. Truly, it was too far away to know for sure, but then, as fate would have it, the bundle began to squirm.
“Hit the brake! he shouted, but you know how long it takes a train to slow to a stop. And this was a heavy, barreling old thing. The squeal was deafening. The conductor fell, the coal in the hopper slid to the ground, they shuddered to a long, aching stop. It was too late, they had passed the spot where the baby had lain. What kind of mother would have walked off and left her child on these cold metal rails? What monster would have made him—an old and blameless man—responsible for the death of a child? He put his head in his hands and sobbed, knowing his life was over. He could never live with the guilt. Just then, suddenly, in the dark, he heard a tiny desolate cry. He was saved—the baby lived!
“The conductor snatched up his lantern and leaped from his post, swinging his light all around. It flashed on the tall swamp grasses and glittering black eyes of bullfrogs. It flashed across the green scum of pollen and lily pad on the swamp below, the sickle heads of snapping turtles. He swung his lantern under the carriage of the heaving train. Was it there? He heard it crying louder. Was it there? He peered deep underneath, reaching along the rail, when—
“SNAP! The train rolled forward and off came his head.”
Her father bolts from the hearse and leaps the NO TRESPASSING sign. Suddenly, it’s all a game, and Jasper bounds off after him with Wallis close behind. She hops the chain herself, following the wake of them in the dark. This sign was here back then, Wallis knows from her father’s telling and retelling of her parents’ first kiss, before Captain Casket or the weather or Sailor Eddie or any of the characters he’d played over the years, back when he was just Edward Alley, an intern hailing from the mountains, judging by his flat-foot accent, who was determined to get a job at the new television station. Even then, he wooed with ghost stories, and her mother, the daughter of his boss, sat cross-legged and enraptured, not believing a word he told her, yet wanting to believe, and falling in love with this odd looking, not-tall, plastic-faced boy, who would not even tell her his age.
One evening when she was sitting in the station manager’s office he’d brought her a cup of coffee like she liked it—black, which was charmingly pretentious in a schoolgirl of seventeen—and he had leaned against the gunmetal desk where she worked. Her yellow hair had been pulled back in a ponytail and her sleeves were rolled up. There was a story he’d heard, he told Ann, about a decapitated conductor who walked the railroad tracks of an old line just west of here. Ann had shivered and smiled up at him from underneath her bright hair and he had invited her to come with him to look for those lights and she had accepted without hesitation. The next night she had concocted a lie for her parents about sleeping over at a friend’s house that came out so easily and well she wondered why she hadn’t thought to tell one before; and then she was speeding down the same dark nothing that the three had just driven, hopping the same NO TRESPASSING gate that they just hopped, onto the same private property, already known as a make-out spot, for who wouldn’t want to press tight together when faced with a decapitated conductor wandering a desolate track?
Jasper and Wallis scramble down the embankment to the tracks where Eddie waits, a shadow among shadows. That night, hand in hand, he and her mother had walked the line, talking softly about the lives they’d lived before this night, for both felt themselves to be in the midst of the most glorious reincarnation; they’d walked and talked for hours, despite a light drizzle that pulled at her mother’s ponytail and brought out, like salt in a soup, the vegetal highlights of the nearby swamp. Then, wanting him to kiss her but not knowing how to make the request, Ann had stopped and, with eyes full of trust and complicity and something just a little challenging, asked Eddie the question Jasper now poses like a smart-ass, here, years later, in place of her whom they had left alone with guests, humiliated and drunk now, asking Cary once more what time he left, if Eddie had ordered dessert. Jasper asks the question Wallis knew had been her mother’s part of the script that night, Are we supposed to believe this? and her father answers it in the same way he had answered her mother that night, as they stood in the center of the railroad tracks that disappeared in each direction off into the woods; he said, and he says: Now, once a year, on this very night, the conductor walks these lonely tracks, swinging his lantern, searching for his missing head . . .
As if on cue, far away, a point of light appears in the woods. And as her mother and father watched, as they watch, it advances slowly, flirtatiously, bobbing like a cork on water. Wallis has heard of will-o’-the-wisps and swamp lights, but nothing prepares her for this inexplicable thing coming straight toward her, growing larger with each bounce. It is a light like a rubber-band ball with no edge or ending, luminous, diffuse, just a brilliant exhalation of the night.
Sweat breaks out on Wallis’s forehead and under her armpits. She tries to remember how the story of her parents’ first date ended, but fear has erased memory and all she can see is her mother back home pulling her sweater around her, watching the children of her guests racing from tree to tree in their backyard playing Ghost in the Graveyard—one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, the children shout, on till midnight—her eyes scanning the road for Eddie’s car. At Wallis’s side, Jasper stiffens, trying to make sense of what he is seeing, willing himself to hold ground. It has passed through and swallowed her father. The light is mere feet from them now, taking up their entire world. It should be thrilling, but it is too real and she can’t let it touch her, she doesn’t know what it is, so she turns and runs like a little kid and remembers now how her mother had, too, that night, racing down the railroad tracks, leaping the wooden ties. It is not after her, it just is, but she can’t help running. There is pounding close behind her, then beside her, then overtaking her, and then she is running after his shadow, Jasper the bold, and he’s lit by the staccato flashes of moon on the worn metal tracks. She runs, not glancing back, running in a straight line as she always screamed at people in the movies never to do—you can’t outrun it, use your head, leave the path and lose it in the woods—but she can’t think, she can only try to keep up with Jasper, whose legs are twice as long. In the story, her father caught up with her mother and spun her around to face the conductor’s lantern, the headless man himself, who dissolved into the mist like the light, which was coming, which had definitely been coming, but which no longer existed, if it had ever existed; and in its absence, he had kissed her, as the rain picked up, no longer a drizzle but fat, cold drops, and he kissed her for a very long time until her heart raced not from fear but from his kisses—though for the rest of her life, she would later tell Wallis, the two feelings would be too closely intertwined for her comfort.
Wallis slams into Jasper, who has stopped. She hits into him sharply and he grabs her to keep from falling over, holding her tight. Together they stare down the tracks to see if they’ve outrun it, whatever it was, but instead, like her mother, find themselves staring into a stretching darkness that holds only the vibrations of their footfalls. No light. No conductor. Nothing.
Jasper could let go but he doesn’t. “What was it?” she whispers.
“Swamp gas, maybe,” Jasper says, his eyes wide and black. “Lights from the highway. Where is Eddie?”
“You were afraid,” she says. “You are afraid.”
He tries to let her go then, but she doesn’t move, because this night will get them in so much trouble already, why stop now? And so as it must be done, as they both finally know it must be done, he leans forward, and his lips are yeasty, his breath sweet.
He pulls back and she sees the look of dismay on his face. Still she doesn’t move, but this time he pushes her, hard, and disappears into the funnel of trees toward the swamp and the conductor’s lantern. She is alone with that kiss. The night is still and finished, everything is suspended in that kiss. Slowly she follows, making out in the moonlight a field, a pickup swallowed by kudzu, the wreckage of what had once been a farmhouse, its windows target practice for decades of boys who had brought their dates to this place. Beneath her feet, she feels the vibrations before she hears the whistle, high and plaintive. Into her open bedroom window, when the wind is just right, she sometimes hears this far-off whistle and, as a little girl, she used to imagine a brightly colored train carrying cars full of tigers and elephants off to tented circuses across the country. Now, she can think only of the conductor, and even as she imagines him swinging his light, looking for something that doesn’t exist, the train’s head beam blinds her. She steps out of its way, feeling the shock waves of crashing metal, melting into its own force and noise, oblivion, it’s rackety freight and rattling gondola cars. She had thought to tell the ghost story tonight, but she should have known her father would not allow it. She could never compete with the master.
Ahead she sees her father in the laser of moth flutter down the tracks. He is waiting whole and unhurt on the embankment, knowing what he has set in motion by bringing them here. Jasper walks toward him, his face the carving of a lover’s initials into a tree. Jasper was brought here to feel what he had never felt, and learn what must be feared, and now her father opens his arms; Captain Casket, who has spent the last twenty years of his life teasing young boys with ghost stories and whose idea of seduction is a ball of vanishing light.
- THE END –
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sheri Holman’s latest novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, has been praised by Jennifer Egan as “immediately engrossing….a tour de force of meticulous research brought urgently to life by headlong, transporting prose.” Her first novel, A Stolen Tongue, was translated into thirteen languages. Her next, The Dress Lodger, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of the New York Public Library’s Books to Remember, and long-listed for a Dublin IMPAC award. Her third novel, The Mammoth Cheese, was short-listed for the UK’s prestigious Orange Prize. Sheri is a founding member and currently serves on the curatorial board of The Moth.
Train photograph by Jon Kownacki, used by permission.
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