She summoned spirits in her stories and called up worlds with just a song. Although we moved away from the farm when I was eight, and she’s long passed now, I raise her up just like I did those first long nights of missing her as I lay homesick in my bed. It was Grandma who taught me how to conjure, her voice like a dove, the sudden clap of wings calling me to listen.
I think of sunflowers, and she is with me, apron tied high on her waist, hands busy snapping beans or pressing an empty baking powder can into dough to shape biscuits; there she is with a quick lick of her finger turning the page of a Bible, or fixing a hairpin come loose in her hair, lifting both hands briefly to pat the braids around her head tame. Invoked, her deft fingers start to move up and down the neck of a guitar, the thumb of her right hand hits the top string at the hollow, her palm slaps against the body to mark a beat. Ever ready to tell a story, she pauses, the guitar against her lap, to answer my entreaty.
“Tell about Great Uncle Riley, Grandma.”
The story begins, she reckons, at Willigan’s General Store. That’s where the trouble first started. Down by Willigan’s, there’s a fork in the road that goes two ways, down two roads, neither of which goes anywhere much. To the right, just past the buttonball tree, the road leads to old Loddick’s place, that’d be Grandma’s Pa and Ma’s; they lived down Decker School Road.
Down the other way, down past the old white oaks, there’s nothing but Scotts living, all up and down the holler, she says.
Willigan’s is set back from the road, and most afternoons more than one old coot sets on the porch, chewing tobacco, whittling away the day, stripping pieces of willow with a pocketknife to make a figure. Grandma doesn’t have to describe how it goes: an old coot aims and spits into a tin can, sends a clean long squirt of brown spittle in an arc to hit dead center. It’s a slow day goes by on that porch, an old fool, mark her words, might seem to be doing nothing, paying no mind to who comes and goes, what happens, but he hears every syllable, sees it all.
“In Kentucky, right Grandma?” I always interrupt her stories with my questions.
Course to Kentucky, child.
“And Dad lived there with you? In Kentucky, Grandma?”
We lived there fore your daddy was borned. I growed up there. Lost our farm, Pa and I did. You want to hear this story or not?
“Yes, Grandma, I do. I do. And I want to hear a song about it too.”
Oh, there’s a song or two about it alright. She chuckles.
Well, my brother Riley and a bunch of his boys were down there to Willigan’s General Store one day, up to no good, I reckon, Grandma chuckles a little, shakes her head before going on.
“What happened, Grandma?”
It was over a woman they got into it, Riley and Aaron Scott.
“What woman? Was she pretty?”
Well, I reckon she was, Grandma says. But I don’t know much about that except folks say Riley shot Scott in the back but it were self-defense. Scott come to kill him over some woman, far’s I know, gun him down. He shot at Riley, hit him, aimed to kill him too.
But Riley had a pocketwatch in his breast pocket, and the bullet hit the pocketwatch. Now one of my brothers has that watch. She smiles. You can see right where the bullet hit. Saved his life. When old’ yella belly Scott turned to run Riley got him in the back. Wearnt the way folks tell. Folks say it wrong and Riley went to prison over it.
Her mother, Martha, my Great Grandma Martha Decker, Grandma says, never gave up on getting him out of prison. She worked on her hands and knees cleaning other people’s floors to raise money for an appeal. She went to see the Governor of Kentucky for a pardon.
Like to broke my mother’s heart, Grandma says. Broke her back over the years, too, trying to get him out.
“Did he ever get out of prison?”
Oh yes, he did finally. My mother never gave up on him. Grandma’s fingers start wandering up and down the neck of the guitar and she begins to strum. Ooh-waoh, Ooh-waoh. She starts to croon.
I want to hear more about Riley, but Grandma’s eyes stop me, the way they look off, down some dark Kentucky holler. So I hug my knees. Ooh-waoh her plaintive voice hums. Like a grey mourning dove, it settles down around my shoulders. I listen.
The story became a part of me in a way, like the fact that I have eyes that turn blue or green depending on what I wear. You could even say and not be too far off if you did, that there was a time that Riley Decker and I followed a common route, could say were headed for a similar outcome. I never hurt anyone and no one would say I was destined to be a murderer, but then I doubt anyone could say Riley was either. What Riley and I really had in common was burned into our DNA; you could call it fate. It was passed down, transgenerational trauma, along with the talent for playing music by ear, the storytelling, and a propensity for alcohol.
Decades later, a new version of the old story surfaces. A long lost cousin, great grandchild to Riley Decker, tells me where to find a transcription documenting his appeal, from prison, to the State of Kentucky. The court document tells a different tale and, as I read, that old gift to conjure Grandma gave me takes over, and I am there.
I conjure up Willigan’s porch and imagine myself not too close, but near enough one of the old coots to see the figure he’s whittling is a whistle. I remember one that Pa, my grandfather, made in the shape of a bird. I get quiet, lean back. The roughhewn wood scratches my shoulder blades through the cotton gingham dress I fancy a girl might wear back then. And then I hear the voices, regular like at first, just men being men, an occasional guffaw. Bring more whiskey, someone calls out to the store tender. I hear the sound of glasses clinking, chairs scraping against the floor; the men are playing cards, maybe poker. Come on deal, Riley! What are you waiting on? John Henry? The smell of smoke wafts out the door, rolling tobacco, raw and tinged with other Saturday night smells, the sweat of men after a long day’s work, the tang of sassafras tea. The April scent of coffee tree leaves mingles with sweet betties, the allspice aroma of flowers a girl would pinch off and crush to pin on her dress in a hanky. The pale porch planks, worn smooth, are cool against my bare legs.
It’s only as the afternoon wears on, dappling light blinking through the leaves of the ancient buttonball tree looming over Willigan’s that the voices deepen, get rough, and loud, then louder. Rounds of whiskey are called for, bootleg–it’s a dry county–and poured all around before glasses are abandoned; Riley tosses his head back and swigs straight from the bottle. Arguments erupt over hands dealt wrong, then settle down, only to erupt again. Aaron Scott drinks as fast as Riley; whiskey is exchanged in place of cash, sometimes tobacco. A winning hand or a losing one, there’s reason to drink. In the midst of one or the other, John Riley’s voice gets mean.
Bastard, he says to Jim Carroll who just raised him one, then spreads out his cards to show a full house and take the jackpot.
That’s my friend you’re talking at. Sound of a chair scrapes back as Aaron Scott gets to his feet, pulls a pocketknife.
Shoot. Ever one knows that boy’s mama, Riley chortles. Can’t say we ever met his pa though have we?
Scott lunges for him, and Riley jumps up just as fast. Pulls a hunting knife from out under his pantleg and out of his boot. Jim Carroll and the others break them up, get them to set. Come on. Someone urges. Deal another hand. You boys settle down. Riley what’s got into you?
I was only jesting. Riley smiles at Scott and slips the Bowie knife back inside its holster, down his boot. He’s an imposing man, maybe the tallest in the entire county of Grayson, a bit stringy, long boned, has a rangy look, and handsome.
That ain’t funny. Scott puts the pocketknife down for the moment.
Eventually old Willigan himself chases the group of men–young, in their twenties mostly, some into their thirties–out of the store. Their heavy boots, the grime on their britches as they clump past me in my hiding spot makes the skin on my arms prickle. I finger the lumpy whistle the old coot gave me earlier as he headed out for supper, watch my ancestor as he falls down once and someone helps him up. He and Aaron Scott are still arguing, but they’re sharing a bottle. Scott takes a swig, wipes his mouth, and swings at Riley, who staggers off.
You fellows stay here twenty-five minutes until I get back with my gun, Riley says. The boys laugh. We won’t stay up for you, Riley, someone tells him.
A music jam starts up not too far off down the holler, fiddles start to talk, a harmonica joins in. A banjo twangs. The air changes slightly, feels electric and someone notes, Might rain yet.
Riley jams his hat further down on his head, sets out for the nearby Carroll place and then over to Jack Downs, but he can’t procure a gun from either. The Carrolls know better than to give a gun to a man full of whiskey, even if he is their cousin. Riley might be the tallest man in Grayson County, but Jack Downs is big and hefty; he’s no fool. Finally, some reckon, Tol Willis gives him an unloaded double-barreled shotgun just to shut him up. Riley heads back to Willigan’s, and the boys are hanging around the porch, hunkered down under the buttonball tree. He leaves the shotgun in the store and takes off again.
If there are any of you sons of bitches here when I come back, you will die before sundown, Riley says.
This time when he comes back, his half-brother Lonnie Decker and Riley’s son Dewey are with him and there’s a pistol, in clear sight, stuck in his belt.
But Aaron Scott’s two sons have also arrived at Willigan’s, and it’s clear the matter is not yet over. The men are gathering in two separate clumps.
Let’s settle this thing, Scott. Riley tells Aaron. My boys and me agin yourn’.
We don’t want no fight around here, Riley, Aaron Scott says.
Riley is on the porch by now and near the store door. Without warning, he steps near the door and turns, shoots at Aaron Scott, who, according to testimony, is standing with his back to Riley.
As Aaron Scott falls, one of his sons fires five rounds at Riley. One bullet hits him in the breast and, just like Grandma said, is deflected by his pocketwatch. Two other shots hit him in the leg. Riley curses, leans over to grab his leg. I’m shot, Dewey.
Hold off. Lonnie Decker’s voice is hoarse. Scott’s boys are going crazy.
Dewey helps Riley to their wagon, hands him a bottle. Riley holds it up to his mouth and tips it back. He drinks, then slumps, all six foot five of him heavy and dead weight, bleeding into the back of the wagon.
Later, his brother and son recount what happened. They say one of the Scott boys took the first shot. The Scotts and other witnesses tell another version, how Riley, unprovoked, shot Scott in the back. The court finds him guilty of manslaughter, and he is sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His appeal, financed on his mother, Great Grandma’s hands and knees, is granted, but the conviction is upheld.
And so the road, as other family pathways I’ve followed back through time, led me, one more time, back to alcohol. I was not surprised to learn that whiskey had a role in Riley’s murder of a man, that, drunk and out of his mind on bootleg, Riley got a gun with which he proceeded to shoot a man in the back. I was not surprised, as bits and pieces trickled in from various family members, to learn my Great Grandma Martha Decker’s role in trying to save her son Riley, who, to her mind, was possessed by alcohol–a demon. Great Grandma Martha Decker, it turned out, not only slaved to get him out of prison. She tried everything to free him from the demon.
It happened at least once, maybe more. One night, when Riley stumbled in from another debauch with whiskey, drunk and passing out, Great Grandma managed to get him–maybe with some help from his brothers–onto the bed on his stomach, where, there in the dim light of the moon and full of the stealth only a desperate mother can summon, she tied his hands and legs to the four posts of the bed with baler twine.
“I’ll get those devils out of you yet,” she raged. A cousin says she “like to beat him to death.”
In those days, alcoholics were considered possessed by demons, my cousin said. Great Grandma Martha tried everything to free her boy from the evil spirits. She “beat the daylights out of him,” as she might have said, trying to get Satan to let him go.
Great Grandma used a razor strap of Loddick’s, and in her fear and pain, her bewilderment before this son whom alcohol had stolen, she brought the strap down upon him until she had exhausted herself, then crumpled into a heap beside the bed, her breath ragged, the boy-man dead to her pleas, and the devil himself might have given in if he could have.
I picture Riley, long-legged and strong, waking up on the floor the next day, puzzled by the twine circling his wrist and ankles. Hungover, with no memory of the beating, bruised and hurting. What he needs is a little hair of the dog that bit him, and he rummages in the kitchen until he finds something, maybe some of Great Grandma’s own medicine she sips from time to time when she feels a touch of the gout.
Great Grandma Martha Decker had a hard life. Growing up, I had heard reference to Riley Decker’s half-brothers Lonnie and Cheerful by name, but no one had ever explained the connection, that they were my Great Grandfather Loddick’s boys with another woman. It was only upon meeting cousins twice removed, years past my growing, that I heard what happened and pictured it, how it might have been.
Cheerful and Lonnie’s mother, Nancy, set on the front porch. As Cheerful might recall, she was eating a plum, ripe, right purple. The fruit squirted when she bit. She made sucking sounds to catch the juice in her mouth. But Lonnie’s memory was probably different. He thought it was a tomato, fresh from the vine at the back of the house, warm from the sun. He picked it for her, carried it in his hand. He, too, remembers the way her mouth relished the juicy fruit.
It is likely neither of them remember any blood, just the man walking up the yard, then a popping sound as he held the gun to her head. How she slumped over before she fell sideways, off the porch. Cheerful carries with him a memory of her like that. After she fell, how she laid there whitely, her skin pale and the buttons of her violet gingham shirtdress open at the neck.
At some point not too long after, another man walked up the yard, knocked on the front door. The two boys recognized him as Loddick Decker, my great-grandfather, my Great Grandma Martha Decker’s husband and my Grandma’s father. He was at least six foot four, a frame his body hung on like a Sunday suit. His eyes were a blue, light and deep at the same time, and the boys knew to go with him when the woman, some kin of their mother’s, handed Cheerful a paper sack.
“Them’s your clothes,” she said. “Now go on.”
The boys started after the big man, hesitated behind him. They looked back.
“Go on,” she said.
Loddick had the horse and wagon they took to town. He got up front to drive the horses, and the boys jumped in the back. Eleven and thirteen they were; skinny, scrawny boys. Eyes like cornflower.
When they got to the Decker place, Loddick took them out to the barn, handed them shovels, a pitchfork.
“Clean up,” he said.
When he left, Cheerful reached out using his fist and knocked Lonnie hard, on the head.
“Bastard,” he said. “Start shoveling.”
Lonnie took hold of the shovel between his right and left hands and went to work. He turned his back to his brother just in time to hide the water in his eyes before he lowered the blade beneath a pile of cow manure.
Martha waited in the kitchen, at the table, with a cup. She’d seen him pull up, saw the two boys get out of the wagon, watched them go to the barn.
He had to duck his head to go through the side door that went straight in to the kitchen. He stood just inside it, hung his hat on one of a line of hooks, run a hand over his thick hair.
Her hazel eyes hard but steady. Some said Martha had the gift of sight, and it made even Loddick skittish. Her eyes ranged up and down his long figure, his head close up to the ceiling.
“Them your boys, Lod?” my great-grandmother asked.
“They are, Martha, and I brung them here for you to raise them,” he said.
Martha’s eyes bore down his and held. He wasn’t a man to countenance question, but on this one, she had a right.
“She’s dead,” he said, as if in answer.
“I knew that,” Martha said.
It was a long minute, as if she had a say, before she nodded.
Loddick picked up his hat and bent down to let himself back out the side door. Once out, he set the hat back on his dark head.
My grandmother Ollie was most likely around back, in the garden. She was holding a round pan, into which she dropped beans as she picked them. She never remembers how she knew those boys in the barn were her brothers by another woman, not her mother. But she knew. She began to hum as she picked more beans.
I’d grown up knowing these voices–oh, how it soothed me to hear the Kentucky lilt in my Grandma’s voice, and the music, how it touched some place deep inside, like rushing water in a mountain creek, and the pioneer stories and the ballads, how they rang true. But certain details, like the role whiskey played, were left out of the versions I heard. The unspoken darkness was left unnamed and, unclaimed, it found a home in me. Shadows curled around the edges, whispered to my heart. I heard its chorus in between the lines, but no words came. If they had, they might’ve been these alone: come home.
I heard our silent story told in sheets of sadness that fell like rain, in pauses between sentences, in notes strummed on a guitar, in the movement of a bow across a violin, in between the breaths of a harmonica’s wail. I heard it in the fingers moving up and down the piano keys, from slow to fast tempo, how it grew from a whisper to a crescendo. My ancestry was a book my body read even though the words were not said.
I saw it weaving through the braids in my grandmother’s hair, as she used to plait it, making a part in the middle of her head, her waist length grey hair divided onto her right and left shoulders; her fingers as she took first one side, divided it into three strands, nimbly wove them together, then did the same to the other, saw it in how she took both silver braids, wound them up around and pinned them, hairpins in her teeth, against her lovely head. I would feel those fingers, and that story, move through my own long hair, as she turned to do the same for me, feel the way her fingers entwined my hair into two long braids she left to hang, dishwater blond strands of DNA, like ladders, on both sides of my head.
My upbringing sheltered me from the wildness I must have come from. One year, as I neared the age of thirty, headed toward my own bottom around using drugs and drinking, my father cleared his throat to tell me something. His words were like an afterthought and, it seemed, apologetic.
You know your grandma’s people were wild, he said. We were traveling that day, as a family, headed toward my brother’s wedding in Minnesota. There was a caravan of cars, all my siblings in one or the other, nephews, nieces, my own children. We drove night and day through five states to reach my brother, meet his bride. I was behind the wheel, giving my father a break from driving, letting him rest a spell. I glanced at him in the passenger seat beside me. I wondered what he was trying to say. He searched for words. I waited, curious.
After a long pause, he turned and eyed me as he said, “It runs in our blood. The wildness.”
Then he pulled his hat down over his eyes and settled back in the seat, went back to dozing.
In the back seat, my two daughters chattered away. I heard my mother chuckling at something they said. Outside the car windows, trees thick with foliage sped by. I focused on the road before me.
Is that all, I thought, and isn’t it a bit late to tell me?
KELLY THOMPSON is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. She has writing published or forthcoming in Oh Comely, The Rumpus, Manifest Station, Witch Craft, The Writing Disorder, and 49 Writers. “Hand Me Down Stories,” is from her memoir in progress, Oh Darling Girl, which explores a transgenerational legacy of addiction, violence, and shame. Sunflowers grew in Kelly’s grandmother’s garden and became a powerful symbol of the love and strength that paralleled that legacy. @stareenite