My brother Jay's troubles had started the previous Saturday with a force of straight line winds that left a two-day trail from Texas to Tennessee. All over Powell Valley, trees of every size had been blown sideways. Giant roots as thick as a man had been ripped apart like strips of licorice. Grace Bailey's trailer was moved two inches off its foundation, and every sheet of tin on Mack Jones' barn was yanked up, nail by nail, blown across the Back Valley Road and scattered over his hay field. Two barns and the skeleton of an old house were knocked down completely on Straight Creek.
On Sunday morning, when the torrents of rain were soaked into the earth and the high winds were replaced with a gentle breeze, Jay and I walked through the woods surveying the damage and finding most of the fallen trees had not torn down any fences. There were only a few places where branches lay against the barbed wire or metal clips had broken away from the fence posts. Those were easy problems to fix.
The roots of some trees were knocked loose, allowing them to sway in the remaining winds. They creaked, giving me an eerie feeling. The noise was like a warning to the others trees in the woods that one of their own was on his last legs.
Jay had looked at every fallen tree, measuring in his head how tall each had been, as well as how big around. He considered what kind of trees had fallen—pines, oaks and sassafras—and he guessed at their ages.
"That storm didn't do us no favors," Jay said. The leaves were soft with the rain, less noisy than usual.
"It won't take us long to clean up," I said, trying to cheer him.
By this time, we had walked to the back side of the farm, along the fence line that separated our woods from the back of Aunt Vonda's yard. Daddy owned the woods on every side of Vonda except for the front side that faced Tranquility Lane. She had chosen the name for the little road, which we joked was anything but tranquil since Vonda lived there. Daddy used to own Vonda's property too until she guilted him into selling her a piece of land so she could come back to Tennessee from Ohio. He knew it was a mistake then, and we've all regretted it ever since. The fence surrounding her land, six strands of barbed wire instead of the usual four or five, was more to keep us out than to keep the cows in.
At Vonda's house, the winds had all but pulled up a white poplar that had grown more sideways than should have been allowed. While the loosened roots were on our side of the fence, the majority of the tree hung over Vonda's side. Now that its roots were weakened, it leaned even more. The tree gave off a death rattle as its furrowed bark rubbed and pushed against the tightly stretched strands of barbed wire.
Long before Saturday evening's wind storms, Daddy had gone twice to cut that tree down, and both times Vonda had chased him off. Daddy wasn't exactly afraid of Vonda, but he didn't like to get in the middle of any trouble with her either.
That afternoon, all Jay said was, "I'll have to figure later on some way to deal with that mess."
Without telling Daddy or me, Jay parked his truck on Tranquility Lane the next morning and went to cut down that tree. Daddy was loafing at the Co-op as he did every Monday morning. And Vonda was on her daily run to the Wal-Mart in Middlesboro.
With one slanted cut from his camouflage-colored chain saw, the tree's top end made its journey to the ground with a loud but dull thud and the rustle of limbs and leaves. Released from its burden, what was left of the trunk jerked back and upright as if the ground had reclaimed what had unintentionally been given away. He made quick work of stripping the poplar of its limbs. Then he threw the debris across the fence as fast as he could until there was nothing left on Vonda's side but the tree's long, straight trunk lying like a fallen soldier on the battlefield.
He only stopped when he needed to catch his breath, but Vonda returned before he could have the job finished. Now, I never believed what she said about having second sight, but Jay said she came ripping past her "Jesus Loves You" sign and into her driveway like she already knew he was there. He could see her cussing before he could hear her, even before she could get out of her little red Sunfire that looked too sporty for her seventy-odd years.
Vonda was a little brown paper sack of a woman, full of nothing but bones and spite. She wore a faded red sweatshirt with the hood tight around her head that hid most of her face, but Jay could see she was angry, down right pissed off. More mad than he had ever seen her.
"Hell and damnation boy. I'll have your hide and hang it on that fence to dry. I'll slice you straight up the middle like the dirty snake you are," she said. "You rotten heathen. Cutting down my tree as soon as I turn my back."
Jay started to cross through the strands of barbed wire as if standing on the other side would protect him. But Vonda's streak of words seemed to make those six tight strands of wire attack him. His shirt caught on the sharp metal and tore. His hands were scratched and bloody before he realized he couldn't get through the fence. By that time, Vonda was getting closer. She was breathing hard from the constant yelling and the slight incline from her driveway.
"How are you going to put that tree back?" she said between huffs. "I want it back just the way it was."
Vonda never was accused of being the most rational person.
"There ain't no putting it back," he said. "I'm sorry, but it had to be done."
"I'll say what has to be done around here."
"Now, you hold on," Jay said. "That tree was on our side of the fence, and it was damaged. I did you a favor by cutting it down before it tore the fence down."
"Boy, you're gonna split hell wide open with that mouth."
"I was trying to clear it so you wouldn't have a mess in your yard. But if you don't quit your damn fussing, I'll leave."
"Don't you talk rough to me boy," she said, as if Jay's foul mouth had given her renewed spirit. "Don't you get in my face. I'll flat take you down. You'll come back a ragged piece of meat. I'm gonna get my gun, and we'll see who's fussing then."
She wobbled down the hill like a crow that won't fly, and then she turned back to face Jay again. "You'll be sorry you cut down that tree. I'll see the rot inside you come out before I'm done." And then she continued climbing up her steps to fetch her gun.
As wild as Vonda is, it's unlikely she would have actually shot Jay. Even if she had fired, chances are good she would have missed. She once tried to shoot a garden snake, but, aiming several feet too high, she shot through her window and took out her microwave instead. Jay and I had gone to replace her shattered glass, and it took us about the whole time to wheedle the true story out of her. Still, Jay decided not to wait around. He left Tranquility Lane before Vonda could reappear.
Things began going wrong by the next day, and it didn't take long for Jay to decide Vonda had aligned the stars against him. There had been a number of small accidents like his toaster catching fire. His TV acted possessed before it completely shorted out. There was an infestation of Asian ladybugs in his house.
Daddy didn't take serious notice of anything being wrong until Jay suffered a true brush with death. That was when Ivan, our big yellow bull, found a weak spot in the fence and broke into Dwight Russell's field after a cow in heat. I would have waited him out and let him come back when he was ready, but Jay decided to take the trailer over there to load him up and bring him home. As soon as he got the trailer hitched up, he realized it had a flat. He jacked the trailer up, ready to take the tire off, when the brakes on his truck failed and rolled straight into the barn, dragging the trailer off the jack, and almost hauling Jay with it. It took him the rest of the day to fix his brakes and the flat.
He was already worn out when he finally went to pick up Ivan. Jay pulled up close to Ivan in the middle of Dwight's field and spoke his cow talk to that old Limousine bull. Ivan didn't care to argue about it being time to go home. Not after he smelled that sweet apple in Jay's hand. The bull climbed in the trailer and ate his apple, and Jay shut the door and drove home. It seemed like the first good thing to happen to Jay all week, but that changed when Ivan recognized his surroundings. He must have been excited to climb out into his own field, and in the anticipation, he started to jump, the trailer rocking with him. His hind legs kicked up in the air, and his whole body bucked. Just as Jay unlocked the door to let him out, Ivan's hooves struck the metal wall of the trailer. The sharp, banging noise scared him so bad, that when the door opened, the two-ton bull lost his footing, and he slid the rest of the way out. This caused the trailer door to fly backwards, and Jay, who couldn't let go fast enough, got knocked down pretty good. He laid there in a wet cow pile, trying to catch his breath while Ivan found his land legs and high-tailed it back to the herd.
"You could have gotten yourself killed," Daddy said. "You can't trust no bull. I swear. I can't turn my back on either of you boys for a minute." That was typical bluster for Daddy, but for once Jay had nothing to say back.
On Wednesday morning, Jay was awakened by the sharp yips of a red fox. The sound was so close, and so unusual, Jay ran outside in his underwear to see what was happening. Sure enough, there was a red fox chasing his cat Bobby Blue out of the woods and through the orchard.
Bobby Blue was a foundling that had appeared outside of Jay's door soon after Jay moved into granny's old house. He turned out to be the best cat there ever was. Bobby was a good mouser and good company, but most importantly, he was a work cat. No matter what the job, Bobby would always follow along with the aim to help. Sometimes, of course he was just in the way, but he thought he was helping. Daddy said he was the smartest cat he had ever seen. What amazed me was how he liked to find a high spot in the evenings and watch the cattle around Jay's house as if they were his and it was his sole duty to protect the herd. He was afraid of nothing, never knowing when something had the better of him, which was almost the case with the fox.
Jay's bare feet ran into the dewy grass without thinking. Unarmed, he yelled at the fox, which paused, looked confused and continued her short, fast barks. Bobby Blue saw his opportunity to escape and ran straight toward Jay and the safety of the back porch. The fox waited, not sure if it was wise to follow or not. Jay went back in the house and grabbed his grandfather's .22-caliber single shot and a handful of shells. His intent was to shoot just near enough the fox to scare her away. When he stepped outside again, he found the little red beast standing in the same spot. He slid one small shell into the gun barrel and pulled the bolt, locking it in place. But at that moment, with his feet cold and wet from the grass, Jay forgot how to shoot.
The gun raised fast and steady to where his eye and the sight could meet. He aimed at the ground near the little fox's feet, sure to scare it but not wound it. His finger wrapped itself firmly around the trigger and tightened, but the gun remained silent. He lowered the gun from his face and searched its simple mechanisms, but, somehow, his mind was blank as to why it would not shoot. He tried again, repeating each previous action, but the rifle and its one single shot were resolute.
He released the bolt and the unfired shell jumped backwards. He pushed it into place and locked the bolt a second time. But again the gun refused to fire. Jay forgot both times to cock the hammer, and even though he looked directly at it, his mind was so befuddled, that important middle step never occurred to him. He could not think to pull the firing pin.
The fox considered all of this with some patience and only an occasional sharp bark. Jay considered it as well. The sun was brighter after this time, and a slight mist was rising from the ground around him and the fox. Jay was suddenly conscious his feet were naked in the dewy grass. He had given up on shooting at the fox. He decided to wave his arms instead, yelling, "Get. Get out of here. Go on." Finally, the fox turned and skittered back to the woods. When Jay went again towards the house, he found Bobby Blue waiting on the porch steps, impatient for his breakfast, as if none of this was any concern to him.
The next morning, Jay woke to the sound of the fox's noise again. Stepping onto the porch, he called Bobby Blue, but the cat never appeared, and the fox's barks moved further and deeper into the woods. All day, Bobby's breakfast remained uneaten in his bowl, and by night time, Jay had convinced himself the little red devil must have killed and eaten his cat. The absence of the gray farm cat grew burdensome on Jay, and he could not help blame Vonda.
After all this continuous trouble, it was hard for me to argue Vonda hadn't set some demon on his back. Even waking up this morning to only a trickle of water pressure seemed like her doing although a busted water line is the kind of event that could happen to anybody.
Daddy and I went to help Jay with his water trouble. The three of us walked back and forth over the line. We tried to find any kind of damp patch of ground, arguing we were too far over one way or another. Once Daddy spotted it, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. The ground was soft from the slow release of so much water, and as Jay's mattock went deeper, the dirt turned right muddy before it became a pure puddle.
For a while, there was only the dull, repeated sound of the mattock striking the earth, and then the steady dragging away of the loose dirt. Jay swung down in short, quick thumps, but not hard enough to cut the water line if he were to hit it by accident.
"Jack, go turn the valve off," Daddy said. The mattock splashed into the mud before Jay's arm would stop. "Looks like we've found it for sure."
I ran down Jay's driveway and across the gravel lane. The gate into the cattle field and the well house door both stood open and waiting. The blue valve turned easy, and I could feel the pressure build in the line, pulsing in my hand like a heart beat, the water waiting to be released again.
By the time I had walked back up to the hole, Jay had dragged most of the mud away from the line. He stood tense then pulled his shoulders down. His back stretched out to relieve the stress. His hair was wooly from what I had figured was another night of restless sleep.
Daddy was already down on his stomach. His hands felt for the puncture in the three-quarter inch plastic as if he were reading Braille.
"Lord God," Daddy said when we heard the sound of a car on the gravel road. Vonda's red Sunfire inched toward the place where we were fixing the water line. Behind her was her man Ligon Fields in his rusted- out Ford pickup. Ligon styled himself a preacher, although he was always the first to tell you he had no official training besides what the Lord had given him. He had a regular following, even though he had to sit out from preaching every now and then. For sooner or later, he got caught stealing money or sleeping with a deacon's wife. And once or twice, he'd been arrested for fighting chickens. But Ligon was the kind of man that took such things in stride, laying low for a while and then finding an empty church building, calling in the faithful from his past congregations and starting up again.
Vonda's head turned back and forth from the road in front of her while trying to see us up in the driveway. The car stopped, and she motioned me towards her. I just waved and turned my attention completely to the muddy hole in front of me, pretending I didn't realize she wanted me to come down to her.
"If we ignore them, maybe they'll go away," I said.
Without waiting any time, the Sunfire sputtered up the little incline of Jay's driveway and into the grass as close as she could get to where we worked. Ligon pulled his truck up behind her until their bumpers almost kissed.
"You made me drive all the way up here on this hill, and now I'll have to throw this parking brake."
"Vonda, now's not the best time," Daddy said.
"The Lord don't wait for the time of man," Vonda told us. She climbed out of the car's low seat. "Besides, I'm not looking for you. I'm here to see Jay. I hear he's had enough trouble for a while and we've come to save him from eternal misery."
"Howdy Ligon," Daddy said from the ground as Ligon stepped closer. "You out saving souls today?" Daddy's hands were still down in the mud, trying to fit in a new piece of plastic line where he had cut out the old piece with the crack. When he looked up, his eyes stuck on a Ziploc bag Ligon carried full of white powder.
"Well, I save when I can," Ligon said, smiling. He was as slim a man as I had ever seen, his skin tough and leathery.
"I reckon there's still a lot out there that needs it."
"The souls are out there all right. But you've got to be like a tom cat and make the calls."
"Well there ain't no need of making a call here," Jay said. "You two can go on home."
"Lord, now I know you're just trying to vex my spirit," Vonda said. "And here I am come to help you."
"I don't want no more help from you. That's what got me in this mess to begin with." Jay's face started to color.
"Hush up boy. I brought Ligon up here to end your suffering."
"What with? A bag of sugar?"
"This ain't sugar," Ligon answered in a tone suggesting Jay should know better. "This is salt of the earth. Salt from which we all come. And from which we shall all return."
"Sugar or salt, you can put it away. I'm not going in for none of your voodoo."
Vonda grabbed for the bag as Ligon's arms went straight up. For a moment, I thought he was going to hit Jay, but Ligon opened his palm and laid it on Jay's forehead, his long fingers extended around Jay's skull in a death grip. "You listen to me boy. An evil spirit has ridden an ill wind and sat down on your soul, and I'm here to get him out whether you want me to or not. Now close your eyes and pray, dammit."
Vonda's hand reached into the snowy powder and then flew out to scatter the salt in a circle around their feet. She threw and threw while Ligon began praying aloud.
"Devil I rebuke ye in the name of the Lord," he started, but he progressed into such a fast, high-pitched whine, the words all jumbled together so that only God could understand them fully. I thought maybe this was what it meant to speak in tongues. The whole time Vonda's wrinkled little fingers went in and out of the salt, flicking the crystals onto Jay's and Ligon's feet, while her own legs danced in a circle around them.
I couldn't tell what effect this was having on Jay, although it surprised me he remained standing in the middle of this mess, with Ligon's hand pushing firmly down on his head and Vonda pelting him with salt.
Daddy's hands had finally stopped moving in the freshly dug hole. His entire body became still, watching the proceedings.
I was mesmerized, sure the flames would leap up from the ground at any moment. Everything in my head seemed to run together. I felt like I was walking in darkness, feeling my way forward with one foot before the other. I was afraid of falling down. And in my mind's eye, I saw Vonda throwing handfuls of pure fire from her magic bag and onto Jay. I went to step forward, but I felt overpowered by the sudden darkness. It had seemed to overtake everything around me until I wasn't sure which way to go. I moved forward, but I don't remember ever being so afraid to fall. My heart beat to the rhythm of Ligon's voice, which grasped for breath as his face and neck grew redder.
Out of nowhere, that fox began to bark. The noise called me back from my imaginings, and I looked across the road and into the field. Down by the creek, I saw a gray streak followed by a red flash of fire. That crazy little fox was chasing Bobby Blue, barking like a regular dog, but at a higher, eerier octave.
Ligon paused in his prayer. Vonda stopped her dance. Jay took the opportunity to step away from Ligon's reach, and even Daddy stood up to get a better look across the field.
Bobby Blue jumped across the creek and then paused to see if the fox was still following.
"Come on, Bobby," Jay yelled. "Come here."
The fox sat across the water and stared boldly up the path Bobby made through the cattle field, his lithe body swimming gracefully through the spring grass.
Jay moved farther away from us and closer to the cat. "Where have you been?" he asked from the other side of his yard. Jay sat down in the grass to pet Bobby's blue gray back. Neither of the two paid the fox any more attention, and at some moment when I wasn't looking, that fox disappeared.
"Well I guess that's the end of that," Daddy said as he lowered himself back down to the ground.
"And I guess we better hit the road," Ligon said, making long strides back to his truck and looking to the sky. It was hard to tell if he felt insulted or just recognized when his job was finished. "Looks like more rain's coming," he said, mostly to himself as he walked away.
"Might do it," Daddy answered, but not loud enough that Ligon or Vonda either one would hear. Bent down, his hands tightened the hose clamps he had already secured around the line. "It might do it."
"You all go home with us," Vonda said as she walked back to her car. The half-empty bag of salt hung limply by her side. "I've got a good mess of beans cooked." There was nothing but sweetness in her voice. She opened the car door but stopped before getting in.
"We better get this water running again," I said. "But thanks anyway."
Daddy and I watched their vehicles back slowly down the hill and make their way out of the lane, driving by Jay and his cat.
"What in the world?" was all I could say to Daddy.
With his eye moving from Ligon's truck to Vonda's red car, Daddy said, almost to himself, "Those two beat more than you can stick a bucket under. But at least they've got conviction. You've got to give them that." His hands were muddy, and he rubbed them together to remove the moisture.
I was unsure of what we had witnessed that day, even of what I had felt happen to myself. I didn't expect Daddy believed much of Ligon's show, but it was hard to even talk about it.
"If he feels better is all that counts," Daddy finally said.
Jay never said for sure what he thought about that visit from Ligon and Vonda, but that day I watched him lie in the grass, so relaxed he reminded me of what he looked like as a little boy. Bobby Blue climbed over his chest until their heads rubbed against each other. That was the first time in a long while I heard laughter from Jay.