Looming large over Crawford, Virginia, knitting together the fears and superstitions of its inhabitants, is the legend of the Gypsy Man. Everyone knows he was kidnapped and returned as an infant, growing into an odd and dangerous adult, only to disappear again during World War I, and return to Crawford--the story has it--to steal children. A certain truth lies behind the myth: the inhabitants of Crawford, each haunted by individual fears, are joined by their common history. Penny Bone is terrified of the phantom, even as more fearful things happen in real life. Henry Gault, her six-year-old daughter's teacher, scoffs at the tale, trusting in reason and foresight to safeguard what is most precious to him. Meanwhile, Penny's husband, John, is in prison for an accidental murder. In this suspenseful and perceptive narrative, these strong and durable characters remind us why life is worth living, as they struggle against the truths of life and death.
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Robert Bausch is the author of a collection of short stories and four novels. He lives in Stafford, Virginia, and teaches literature and creative writing at Northern Virginia Community College.
At the top of this mountain, where clouds are neighbors, you can see everything clear-close up or miles and miles away. The air is colder somehow and don't get hazy too often. From the back porch of my cabin I can see the white stone all the way across the yard. Maybe it's always been there, but it never meant so much until now. It was just a stone for a long time. Yesterday, my little girl found lettering on it.
I didn't mind it when it was just a white stone. It looked like a small piece of paper, sticking up out of the brown dirt. I remember one time I pointed it out to John and I said, "Look, it's like the mountain has a broke bone sticking out of it."
And John says, "What's that my daddy's always saying? 'Ain't no Bone ever broke. We bend. We don't break.'" He smiled, give a short laugh. You see that was John's last name: Bone. He used to be my husband.
I always liked to sit next to him in the evening and just talk. That day I leaned my head on his shoulder and just concentrated on the smell of him, on the curve of his arm. I don't remember if I knew already he was going.
"Seems funny for my daddy to be saying that, don't it?" he says.
John's father was a drunkard. And still is. Nothing else. He's under the care of a bottle.
I said, "You worried about him again?"
"Worrying about a thing don't change it," he says. "But if there ever was a broke Bone, he's it."
We was married only a few months when John got taken off. It seems like just yesterday. But it was a long time ago. And even though he said that about no Bone ever being broke and all, I wonder sometimes what's happened to him. I never see him, never talk to him. But John was about as solid as anyone I've ever known. It took me a year or two to speak of him in the past tense. Tory don't even remember him, and she's six going on seven. He ain't dead or nothing, but he may as well be. Plain as day.
I try not to think about John, but I see the light of him in Tory's eyes. The way she flashes scorn or pity, or when she laughs or teases me, or gets stubborn and can't say nothing but no-it's John in her eyes.
But like I said, John is gone. When they took him away he says, "I'm dead to you, and you got to be dead to me."
"I can't," I said. I wasn't crying, but it took all I had. I couldn't resist his will, too. "I can't think of you dead when I know you're alive."
"I ain't alive," he says. "I ain't alive again, honey, for twenty years."
"I'll wait then," I said.
"No," he says. "You ain't."
He wanted me to divorce him, but I wouldn't do it. I said, "Why let the state in on that, too?"
"In on what?"
"On our vows. Our betrothment."
Now I was being stubborn. Tory just a baby in my arms, and the state takes John away from me, for twenty years. He spends all his days and nights at a place called Richard Bland. It's a prison, in case you don't know. I ain't seen him in almost six years. I miss him sometimes, but not nearly as bad as I did in the beginning. You might think I'm only saying that, but it's true. He's going to be there another fourteen years, so I don't see no point in pining over him. It is sad, though, because he was really innocent. Oh, he done what he done, but he didn't mean to. It was just an accident. But he got charged with manslaughter, anyway, and now my daughter is fatherless, as I was.
My father died in the war. Got killed in France, I'm told, although it might've been anywhere over there, as far as I know. I was eleven years old. When I was fifteen, I met John, and by the time I was seventeen I married him and give birth to Tory.
We been together, just her and me and my aunt Clare, since they took John away. We done all right, I guess. Clare runs the store and cooks for us-and sometimes I cook. I'm teaching Tory to cook a little bit, and she helps me with the wash, sometimes. On Saturdays I work in the Goodyear Tire and Auto Store. Just a clerk, you know, but sometimes I help with the ciphering and keeping the books and all. Mr. Henderson, the manager of the store, says one day he might send me to school to learn secretarial work. Or maybe even manager's school. Goodyear's got a program, he says. I don't know about being a manager, though. It's enough chasing Tory around.
We do all right. Clare says I got a big insurance check when my daddy died, and we're spending it in small pieces. "I pay us a little bit out of it every month or so," she says. "You'll still have most of that money when I'm dead and gone." It's supposed to be fifty thousand dollars. I ain't never seen the account but I know what the policy said. It's in a trust fund. And Clare makes a little at the store, and I bring home my checks from the Goodyear Company. It ain't like we're starving or nothing, but sometimes I wish Clare wanted more. More than just another man to run around with.
She's gone off again.
I was sitting out in the backyard after dinner last night when Tory found the lettering on the stone.
I asked her how she found it, and she says, "I seen it."
"But how?" I said.
She shrugged. "I don't know."
"Was you digging around it?"
"And ain't I told you not to go digging in the mud around that stone and getting your hands dirty?"
She come up the steps and sat down next to me. "Look at my hands," she says. She held them out flat in front of me.
"Turn them over," I said. "Let me see your nails."
She clasped her hands together and put them between her knees. "My nails are fine," she says.
"Let me see."
"Well, you'll just have to wash them again before you go to bed."
"We'll just see."
After a while, even with Tory sitting next to me and chattering about the stone, I felt kind of lonely and sad. It seemed like the air I inhaled could spread out anywhere in my body, and make me cold and afraid at the same time. I can't explain it. I wanted a car to come. Somebody I knew to get out and visit for a spell. Maybe a car with my aunt Clare in it. She's been gone this time for almost three weeks. Even for her, that's a long time without letting me know where she is, or when she might come back. Course, I don't blame her for wanting to get away from Crawford.
Crawford ain't much of a town-no bigger than a city park, even though it does have a sawmill, a post office, a fire station, and, of course, the brand-new Goodyear Tire and Auto Store where I work. I don't just work there, though. I always help my aunt Clare in her little grocery store. She's owned and operated that store all her life. I think she got it from her father. I don't know for sure. People say the store run a lot more smoothly before the war, and when Clare was younger and had the help of my father. Now, it runs when I'm there and when Clare feels like it.
Crawford's got a school, too. It's not a real school-it's a big house. Mr. Gault, the mayor, lives there with Myra, his wife, and does the town's business in a white room off his den. He's got a lot of flowers and tall, green umbrella plants and ferns in there for some reason-it looks like a funeral parlor most of the time. I like the smell in there, though. The school is in his basement. He's got five small rooms down there, with maps, blackboards, tables and chairs, like you'd see in any school. Tory goes there now, just like I did until a few years ago. Mr. Gault is the principal and his wife, Myra, teaches classes, too. And there always used to be another woman or two that he called the "faculty," but lately it's just him and his wife. Gault was my only teacher most of the time.
People might get the impression that this here's a lazy place, but it ain't. People work even whenever they don't feel like it and always if they can find work to do. We got no factories or department stores or auto dealers-although the tire store sometimes sells a used car or two if it becomes available. All we got is the mill and that don't provide near the work it used to. It's almost finished, too, I guess. My aunt Clare's tiny market does okay because folks don't like to drive down the mountain if they don't have to. She keeps bread and milk and butter and cheese and a few vegetables and such. Now and then she has dried meats or cured ham. I live with her across the way from the store and up the hill just before you get to the old Crawford place. Aunt Clare took in my daddy and me when my mother died, and we just stayed there until he went off to war. My mother died before I had any kind of memory of her, so I guess you could say that Clare's been like a mother to me, although it really don't feel like any such thing. Especially now, since she's gone off and disappeared again.
The old Crawford place used to be huge-and rich folks lived there. Like I said, that's how the town come to be called Crawford. People was always going up there looking for buried treasure or family valuables, digging up every square inch of the place just about. Or trying to. It's mostly rock up there, with just little dirt and moss growing over it. Ain't hardly nothing left of the place now. And Crawford itself? Nowadays, it ain't nothing but small farms in this part of Virginia. Small, poor farms. This ain't like the foothills. It's a mountain, high and rocky. You could stand on our front porch and shoot a .22 shell into West Virginia. If anybody could play the piano in that state, you could hear it. It snows three times more here than in Washington, D.C., which is where I come from. My father brought me here, and then when the war come he went off and died.
I guess Clare will come back, but I wonder sometimes what will happen if one day she don't. I mean, would the store and the cabin belong to me?
To be honest, I really don't want it.
I want Clare to come back. I shouldn't worry about her. She drinks a lot sometimes, and runs around with truckers and all. Just she never done it without telling me she was going to. "I'm going to be wit...
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