Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Cry Me a River

Beverly Forehand


The dead are all around us. They are in the earth, in the water, in the very air we breathe. When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to tell me about the ghosts on the creek. There were lots of them. There was the Civil War soldier who walked the road from Franklin to here always trying to get home. There was the headless man who stalked the wagon roads mutely holding a lantern in his graying hand. There was the baby who cried shallowly from the walls of the old Milburne cabin—a house that no one had lived in for longer than a year at a time since before my grandfather was a boy. And there was the river woman. No one knew her name, but most of us, at one time or another, had seen her slow weeping walk down the banks of the river.

Oh, it’s not really a river. We just call it that. Most of us have never seen a real river. My grandfather said that he once saw the Mississippi and that it was so far across you couldn’t see the other side. Even the Duck River is really only a creek with attitude. Our river was really a creek—a big, fierce creek that became even fiercer after a hard rain, but a creek, nonetheless. You could walk across it if you found enough strategically placed stones. It was waist-high in most places, but it ran low in the summer. There were low slick, mossy places that would catch you unawares and sharp rocks that would tear right through a rubber boot. Mean catfish, big as small dogs, lived in the muddy banks, and had been known to take a chunk out of a fisherman’s leg. Men had drowned in that creek after floods or when they’d had too much to drink. Little kids had floated away right in their mother’s sight when a bad current caught them. Sometimes there were dead things in the creek—cows, birds, and things the water had carried so long that no one could name them.

Still, I never knew of any spirit to walk those waters except the Weeping Woman. I’ve seen her—twice in fact. You can only see her at dusk—right as the sun is coming up or going down. She’s not one for starry nights or the light of day. Her hair is the color of birch tree bark, pale brown and white mixed together to form a color not quite gray. She was like a faded picture. Clear, but almost cracked around the edges. Even a fool could see that she wasn’t human anymore. It was as if she had tried really hard to remember what someone should look like, but could just remember the particulars. She had hands and feet and hair, but they were the merest outlines of a woman. The only thing about her that was whole was her grief. She walked the edge of the water and cried. She cried noisily, the kind of hiccuping sobs that come from the very heart of a person. She never looked up. She never spoke to anyone that I ever heard of. She just walked and cried and left no footprints—not even after a rainstorm when the banks were so muddy-slick that a man only walked near them at his peril.

There’s a story about her. No name. Just a story. My grandfather said that his grandfather told it to him. She was a girl that lived at the far end of the creek. There were cabins there once. Now, there’s nothing there at all, but a heap of sand that the county pushed up for flood control. She was a plain girl with brown hair and brown eyes. She wasn’t beautiful or smart or particularly clever, but everyone agreed she had a good heart. She was the sort of girl that nursed injured animals, even the wildest badgers and foxes, back to health. She patched the broken wings of birds and she sang as she worked. Back then, everyone worked—even the smallest child. On a farm, the work was never done from sun up to sundown. She had rough hands from working the dirt and rough feet from walking barefoot all summer. Her hair, more often than not, had a sprig of hay or rowan in it. Maybe she had dirt on her nose some days or a hole in her calico dress. But none of that was important. The important part was that she was a good girl. Truly good at heart which was as rare in those days as it is now.

She fell in love with the preacher’s son. The preacher, a kind man himself, if a little absent-minded, was from up North somewhere. He had attended a swear-to-God seminary school and had a degree to hang on his wall. His house, which was in town, a half-day’s ride by wagon or horse, had lace curtains and a real front porch with a swing. His son, a handsome boy, who was fully aware of his good looks, didn’t work at all. He kept to his studies—or he was supposed to anyway. Most days, he rode around the county on his fine dark horse causing all sorts of trouble. His friends, equally given to mean-spiritedness and laziness, met up with him when they could. But, most of them were country boys who had cows to milk and fields to plow and couldn’t give themselves over completely to dissolution. The preacher’s wife, God-rest-her-soul, had passed on some years earlier. By all accounts, she had been a gentle woman with some money to her name. It was because of her, or more specifically her money, that the preacher and his fair-haired son didn’t have to spend their days in shop or field. Preaching, in those days, was seldom a full time job. You would often as not to see the same man you saw in the pulpit on Sundays humping it through a furrowed field with his old mule on a Monday or pounding out horseshoes as the local blacksmith. But, this preacher was a full time preacher—as rare and precious a thing in those days as a silver dollar or a blue moon.

Despite his leisure time, the preacher didn’t seem to have much time to mind his son, who tore about the neighboring farms and fields making mischief. He’d pull down scarecrows just for spite or knock down a fence slat so that cows would be found wandering dazedly on the creek bank or the road. He was the kind of boy that threw rocks at old dogs and spooked horses for the sport of it. He shot and killed stray cats and deer and left them to rot. I doubt that a boy like that, a selfish boy with his eyes on nothing but his own pleasure, would’ve ever noticed a brown faced girl with freckles on the bridge of her nose. His eyes were full of town girls with starched crinoline dresses who wore white gloves in summer and spring and carried umbrellas on rainy days. He would’ve never noticed such a regular girl even if she had been standing right in front of him offering him a glass of cold water on a sweltering day.

Love is a funny thing. It can make the hardest man go weak at the knees or make the most timid of women as brave as any lion. Love can move mountains, so they say, and I don’t doubt that it’s true. For this girl, an ordinary girl in every way, love was a revelation. Life seemed sweeter for the very presence of it, even if her beloved never looked her way. Knowing that she loved was enough, and she believed, in time, as with all things, love could only turn things to the better. Every time she saw the fair-haired boy—in town, at church, at a barn dance, or along the river, she’d smile and wave. Despite his lack of interest, she hoped that she was an ameliorating influence on him—that somehow her very goodness would rub off and he would in the end give up his wicked ways. The girl believed that like the proverbial Light on a Hill she could cast goodness by the strength of her desire into his black heart. Of course, she didn’t believe he was bad through and through. Others might believe that, but she could see in the darkest recesses of his blue eyes that some goodness—some spark of the Divine still lurked there.

Someone with less optimism or more experience would’ve given up the first time he turned away or when he and his half-drunken friends almost ran her down with a buckboard. But, the girl was one for perseverance. She’d seen that even the wildest of stray cats could, with enough kindness, be taught to eat from your hand. A dog that always bit wasn’t naturally mean, just ill treated. With enough love and patience, any animal could be taught to love. But the preacher’s son was no stray cat or bird with a broken wing. He was a man, or close enough to it for the edges of boyhood to be rubbing thin. He wasn’t mean due to cruelty done to him, but because of the very cruelty of his own nature. If a dog bit him, it was because he deserved it.

The girl should have known the warning signs—when small children and house pets run, it’s because a man’s heart is black through and through. Children and animals, so akin to each other, navigate by the standing up of hair on arms, by the feel of the wind. They know the scent of badness as surely as the smell of a rotten apple. Small things don’t survive very long if they don’t know what’s coming around the bend. After a church service, while everyone stood around reviewing the week’s gossip and exchanging recipes for apple pies and remedies against bee stings, the fair-haired boy and his friends stalked off to their own fun. The girl ignored all this. She never listened to a bad word said about anyone. Some might think that a good quality in a girl or anyone else—but in this case, there was a reason behind all the talk. There’s never smoke without fire, one might say.

Years passed while the girl mooned after the preacher’s son. During that time, the girl grew taller and more freckled and her heart grew even softer. So sweet was her nature that bees would follow her scent, mistaking her for a flower in bloom. Birds would land on her shoulder when she sat very still and children ran up to her and held her hand without even knowing her name. The fair-haired boy, her opposite in every way, only grew more perverse with time. As his face became more beautiful, his hair more golden, and his eyes the color of the sky after a storm, his heart grew smaller and harder until his soul, if he even had one, was no bigger than a pebble—and certainly no more yielding. He broke a heart a week and thought nothing of it. He drank and rode all night with his friends. Their laughter could be heard echoing in the night—and they were just as dangerous to meet on a moonlight stroll.

The girl lived by the creek in a four-room cabin with a wide porch. She liked to sit on the porch late on summer evenings when the mosquitoes had landed for the night and the honeysuckle was sweet and heavy on the air. It was a night just like that, a moist summer night, when she heard the boy crying out. It was the cry of a child and not a man and at first, she thought, that some child had fallen in the river. The water was high and swollen with a week’s worth of rain. Whitecaps swelled against the bank’s edges and caught on rocks. Fallen trees swirled by giving the water a dull muddy look. The moon was full that night and the girl could see a long way. She could see the boy’s friends standing on the bank of the river and she could see the foot log slipping. The boy, dared by his friends, had climbed out on the foot log—a long piece of pine roughly hewn and safe enough in dry weather. But with the storm, the water brushed the bottom of the foot log making it sway and buck. The boy, as foolish with his own safety as with others, walked, whistling, out on the wood, but halfway across, the foot log slipped away from the muddy bank and into the furious waters.

The boy had time to cry out and try to run back to his friends before the log slipped into the murky waters. The girl watched as he clung to the log, his bright hair pasted to his face, his eyes wide with fury and fear. With no thought for herself, she waded out into the water, the current pushing against her—her dress twisting against her legs and pitching her forward onto a rock. The boy on the log sailed past her, one hand out-reached, their fingertips almost touching, and for that one time, he really saw her. He saw her completely and she reached her hands out toward him with all her hope and love, but he slid under the water and was gone. The log swirled by, hitting the bank and gaining momentum, while the girl clung to the rock and cried. She could hear voices, his friends, calling from the bank, but she said nothing. Eventually, someone pulled her out of the water and put her to bed. She developed a fever from the cold water and her own grief, but she was young and soon regained her strength—if not her heart.

They found the boy several miles down the creek. His beauty was gone now, but the girl never saw him. She was too ill to attend the funeral—her fever lasting several days. In her mind, he remained the bright boy laughing with his friends or the desperate one reaching out for her hands

For the rest of her life, the girl loved the fair-haired boy. Death had erased all his faults—not just to her, but to the entire town. In life he had been spoiled and selfish, but in death he was given a kind heart and a loving nature. The girl, who was always kind and gentle-natured, only grew more generous and sweet-spirited. Although she was never beautiful, she could sew a fine stitch and everyone loved her. Her goodness drew men to her and several made proposals, but she turned them all down.

She lived a long life, and though she had no children of her own, all children loved her. She grew roses in her garden and was too indulgent to even pull up violets or creeping jennet. She left out crumbs for the birds in winter and milk for stray cats. And every sunset, she walked the riverbank, winter and summer, sun and rain, and thought of the boy. It seems that even in death, she still walks and thinks of him. I’ve seen her, sometimes, in the late shadows, walking with her head down and streams of tears falling from her face. She’ll pass you with a whisper of air and a faint scent of lavender and rosemary—the herbs that make you think most of loss and might-have-beens. Strangely, no one has ever seen a hint of the boy along those dark banks. Perhaps love is what lingers on in the case of the girl—and love, unlike fear or even sorrow, cannot be diminished by time or distance or even death. Who knows? But, she does walk the banks of the river, a brown haired girl watching the waters for a lover that was never hers in life.

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Beverly Forehand is a freelance writer and painter living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her short stories and poems have been published in Atriad Press' Haunted Encounters, Bewildering Stories, FATE, The Harrow, LongStory Short, Quantum Muse, Typhoon.net, Waxing Waning Moon, Ultraverse, The Wheel, Zephyrus, and other publications. She recently published a pet recipe book with Dawson Progressive and is a monthly columnist for Critter Exchange. Her hobbies include cultivating her medieval herb garden and begging her cats (unsuccessfully) to stay off the sofa.

© Beverly Forehand

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012