By Tracy Canfield
4 July 2011
SING, said the hand-painted sign in front of the Riddle Hill United Church of Christ. And they sang. They put solar-powered crosses in the graveyard that shone all night so the dead could sing too. They would have sung the whole valley down to its knees by now if it wasn't for One-Eyed Jack's.
Granny Hillburn drained her coffee and scowled at the hymn battering the mountainside below, five hundred voices twisted into a single mass of song. HIS TRUTH TO TRIUMPH THROUGH US, boomed the Singers. Lizzie reached for the empty cup but Granny waved her off.
"I can still wash up my own dishes, child," she said, sharper than she liked to hear herself. She didn't mean to chide her granddaughter for being a good waitress; one day the Coffee Pot Restaurant would be Lizzie's, as was good and proper. But Granny's coffee grounds had settled in a single straight line, and she didn't want Lizzie to see them. That meant a funeral was coming.
"I wanna plant us a cell phone tower before it gets too cold," said Lizzie. "We could have 3G/4G by this time next year."
"You stay inside," said Granny. "It's too loud out there." She pushed herself to her feet with her stick.
"It won't take but a minute."
"I said no." Granny wasn't angry. It was Lizzie Hilburn's place to suggest new things, and Granny Hilburn's place to dismiss them. That's why there were always two Hilburns. "You oughter stay in here anyway. I was fixing to get up and make my rounds."
"I'll do your rounds," said Lizzie, but Granny shook her head.
She swept Rob Dailey's tip into her apron pocket and cranked up the TV so the ad for Dailey's Hot Tub and Pool drowned out the hymns below. She oughter do something about the Sing. She oughter do something about One-Eyed Jack's. But if she took one of them on, the other would have the valley to itself; and she wasn't certain she had the strength to fight them both, what with keeping one eye on I-79 every minute of the day.
She buried Dailey's coins in the apple orchard so they wouldn't leave the mountain. She would've liked to sit in the apple orchard and bask in the August sun, maybe splash some spring water on her bad knee. She didn't reckon anyone in West Virginia remembered that you could dip a knife in that spring and make it a magnet, or that you could stick the seeds from those apples on your forehead to tell you which boy you'd marry; but the water brewed good coffee, and the apples made good pie, and one way or another, one year to another, the Hilburns would always feed the mountain from that spring.
Granny hobbled down the gravel road and then the paved road to the valley. Kudzu vines were crawling up to the edge of what she looked after. She bent down—the twinge in her knee brought her near to cussing—and felt under the leaves for the purple blossoms. They'd make good jelly for the restaurant. Then she turned back the vines with her stick, careful not to break them off and enrage them into sending out new sprouts. Every weed had its own remedy.
Around the bend stood the rusty sign with the light-up arrow and the plastic letters that said ONE EYED JACKS GENTLEMANS CLUB. The yellow double-wide trailer behind it slumbered evilly in the daylight. Its windows were painted over, or maybe they were just thick with nicotine and sin. A pack of glistening motorcycles, the cleanest things in the valley, lounged in the gravel out front.
A vine the size of Granny's thigh wound out of the side of the trailer. She poked her stick at a bulging bud that belched out a reek like burning trash bags. By this time next week it'd be a meth lab. She pounded it into a heap of bruised petals and broken glass, till she was gasping for breath. Round the north side of the trailer more vines were coming into bloom—a nascent payday loan place, Shylock's Pawn—but she was just too spent to handle them.
My granny would have busted them all, back when I was a girl, she thought. But she hadn't had to deal with I-79, inching closer every day.
One-Eyed Jack's had power. The Sing had more, but so many of the church folks came to Jack's at night that their power was divided.
Granny stopped to let her breath catch up with her and listened to the Sing in the distance. They weren't lifting their song up to Heaven. They were lifting themselves up, and she didn't know where to, but she didn't care for it.
Riddle Hill had always been the singingest church in West Virginia, but the Sing was more than they could handle. When the music wrapped around the mountain it reeled folks in. There was one Amish family whose farm touched the mountainside, and they used to ride right past the Riddle Hill graveyard in their horse and buggy with the SLOW VEHICLE triangle on the back. But then a Singer sabotaged their butter churn, and now they sang, and the horse sang too.
Granny plucked a spray of plastic flowers out of the ditch, blown off a grave by the might of the music once it got going. Tomorrow she would come back down and kick that pawnshop into a tattoo parlor or a liquor store. For now she'd just stand across from the Sing and thumb her nose at it and try to make the Singers bust out laughing. After, she thought, after she'd fortified herself with a slice of pie and maybe another cup of coffee.
But when she got back to the Coffee Pot, Lizzie was gone.
The TV was showing a traffic report, I-79 twisting and rolling in the background just to mock her, and Granny turned it off. She needed to find Lizzie, but she didn't dare leave the Coffee Pot unguarded. She shuddered to think what would happen if One-Eyed Jack's or the Sing took it over.
Granny didn't have a bed. She didn't sleep. From a trunk in the storage room she fetched out a tulip-square quilt that had been her grandmother's. Granny had a grandmother, but she didn't have a mother; she had a granddaughter, but she didn't have a daughter. There were always two Hilburns.
She hauled down the menu board, straining under the weight, and tacked up the quilt in its place. That was better, but not quite enough. She turned over a slip from her order pad, wrote NOT FOR SALE across the back, and slipped a hairpin from her bun to fix it to the quilt's frayed corner. That should hold until she got back. For the first time in fifty years, she turned the Coffee Pot's sign from OPEN to CLOSED.
The Sing beat at her with every step. THERE IS POW'R, POW'R, WONDER-WORKING POW'R IN THE PRE-CIOUS BLOOD OF THE LAMB. I-79 thumped feverishly at the back of her head and her eye rolled around so it itched. She leaned into the music, sinking her stick into the ground like a weasel clawing its way up an icy chicken coop ramp.
The Riddle Hill parking lot was full of new SUVs and new pickup trucks and new camper trailers and a shiny new fiberglass buggy, hooked up to a horse in gleaming leather harness. Riddle Hill sure had sung itself up some prosperity. The horse stamped its hoof, peeled back its lips from square teeth, and sang.
I SHALL POSSESS WITHIN THE VEIL. The song was as strong as a thunderstorm, but it didn't seem no stronger than usual. And that was one good thing about the twining voices that whipped her gray hair loose from her bun and stung like wood nettles—they hadn't added Lizzie's strength to theirs. They hadn't made her sing.
The church pulsed like a heart atop Riddle Hill. Its walls had fallen away, the stained glass melting into colored drops, sucked up by the organ that pumped them miles into the sky. O FOR A THOUSAND TONGUES TO SING.
A heavy hand dropped onto Granny's shoulder and turned her to face a familiar beard on a familiar bear-shaped frame. "You've come far enough, witch woman," he said, "unless you've come to sing."
"Rob Dailey?" said Granny. "It got you too?"
"The Lord wants me to sell a lot of hot tubs," said Dailey, "and He wants me to sing."
"Have you seen my granddaughter, Mr. Dailey?"
Dailey's lip curled in contempt. "I seen her," he said, "but I ain't seen her here, and I don't reckon I will see her here unless she repents."
"If you ain't got her," said Granny, "then she must be—"
A blast of heat licked across the valley. It wasn't hellfire; it came from below, but not that far below. The sopranos shrieked and pushed their skirts back down. The Reverend's black shirt blew open and revealed a pair of beaded pasties. Below the ground there were wolf whistles.
"I came the wrong way," said Granny. "It's One-Eyed Jack's that's getting stronger. I wish I had one of them motorcycles right now so I wouldn't have to walk."
"You headed for One-Eyed Jack's?" said Dailey. Granny thought she detected a wistful tone to his booming voice. "All God's enemies, gathering in one place? Maybe it's time we sang you all a song."
MANY DANGERS, TOILS, AND SNARES, howled the Sing. Bikers circled the toxic yellow trailer like locusts. "Get outta here and go," grunted one of them. He had dark circles tattooed around his eyes and the lines of teeth tattooed across his lips, like the shadows on a skull. The fleshy teeth were straighter than his own, and there were more of them. "Take your withered-up titties and get out. Ain't nobody wants to look at you."
Granny tugged on the trailer's screen door. Music pounded inside, One-Eyed Jack's armor against the Sing: electric booming and wailing over an electric drum, an automatic song no human throat had sung. The DJ, patting her candy-pink wig into place, shot Granny a smirk that made her bad knee throb.
Inside it was hotter than the hinges of Hades, and it was so much bigger than the outside. Colored lights and smoke hazed the air. The customers were covered all over in leather, in denim, in polyester blends, covered except for their eyeballs. Granny poked her way between them with her stick.
Up on the stage, the young women were naked as jaybirds, or maybe a little nakeder. They lolled on poles, eyes tipped back in their heads. Lizzie lay at their feet, roped in iridescent strings of drool and worse.
THE SAINTS ON EVERY HAND ARE SHOUTING VICTORY, crowed the Sing, but the hymn was thin and distant. Jack's electric thumping took up the beat, and the electric caterwauling took up the melody. The dancers swung their heads to the rhythm. One-Eyed Jack's was drawing in the Sing, not breaking its hold with laughter the way Granny liked to do, but dirtying it so it wasn't fit for use.
"You can't take Lizzie less you take me too," said Granny. "There's always two Hilburns." She gripped the stage railing—it was wrapped with Christmas lights—and took a heavy step up. She set her stick on the stage, and the ear-snapping crack gave her hope, but it wasn't the stage that was breaking. Her stick shivered in her hand like a snake. It wrenched her shoulder. It shattered into kindling and she fell.
The grinding whine behind her was too ugly for even Jack's music. Granny raised her aching head and saw Bob Dailey striding through the ruined screen door. THE WORLD IS NOT MY HOME, he sang, and flame rolled from his hairy lips and set the DJ booth on fire.
Lizzie blinked heavily. "Granny?" she said.
Lord, thought Granny, if you can hear me down here, if you can hear me over the Sing, forgive me for what I'm fixing to do.
She took her eye off I-79.
The interstate gushed through the valley in a gray deluge, a hundred miles of asphalt that threw its loops around the mountain like a corn snake embracing a rat. A parade of car horns blatted out the hymns, called the bikers away to states with long straightaways and no helmet laws. A billboard smashed through the trailer roof—REST STOP 30 MILES—narrowly missing Granny's loafers. Beside her a stout Singer clutched a stage strut so tightly her fingers went white, but I-79 washed her away to a church the size of a city department store, with a TV screen in place of the hymnals.
"You go back where you came from," cried Lizzie. I-79's tall yellow street lights lit up her bare flesh. When had the girl's voice gotten so fierce? When had she grown so tall?
"You've got all you're going to get." Lizzie spat on the roiling tar. "Now go back, I-79. I've got my eye on you."
The highway shuddered under Lizzie's unblinking gaze and slithered away, shaking off one last dead raccoon on the rubble that had been One-Eyed Jack's.
Lizzie knelt at Granny's side. "You're hurt bad," she said. "We've got rags and vinegar back at the Coffee Pot—"
Granny's breath came hard. "Carry me back up the mountain," she groaned.
"I didn't fall asleep, did I?" said Granny. She sure didn't feel rested.
Sweet-smelling leaves drifted down from the apple trees onto cast-iron pots and shards of mismatched china. The Coffee Pot had blown to splinters when I-79 rolled across it. Drywall and brick lay in shambles.
Lizzie leaned over and brushed a leaf off Granny's forehead. She'd wrapped herself up in the tulip quilt. The NOT FOR SALE tag flapped, unnoticed, from one corner.
"Bury me in the orchard, Lizzie." Granny's knee didn't hurt like it used to. "You can plant your cell phone tower next to my grave. Bury me in the orchard so I never have to leave."
"I can't do it," said Lizzie. Tears slipped down her face, leaving two clean streaks. "It ain't your time to go. And I ain't meant to be alone. There's always two Hilburns."
"The Sing is gone. One-Eyed Jack's is gone." Granny's apron dragged at her as if the change was straining to be buried. "The Coffee Pot is gone. But the spring, it's still here. It's going to need all your new ideas. Me, I'm all worn out. I got to sleep." She knew it was not sleep, though; she never slept. She sank down onto the welcoming dirt of the mountain.