Blood Memory: Short Story By Roy Bentley Set in Southern Appalachia

Image of Southern Appalachian creek baptism, circa 1940

Blood Memory

My farrier wants to bring his handcuffs. My sister Abby is on furlough from Eastern State Hospital and has to be taken back. And the likelihood is that she will fight going. If she weren’t so explosive or hadn’t shot at a man with a .45, running him up a telephone pole to escape her, we might not have to be talking handcuffs. I tell him I’ll let him know. I’m not sure yet about the timing of any attempt to return her to Lexington. Daddy has only been in the ground a few days, and I’m not sure when would be a good time. I do know that I’ll need help, however.

Joe Samuelson is the last of his family trained to do the work he does. Joe lives in a house I provide and takes care of my mare Irish Dancer. He has a talent for getting people to tell him things. His wife Tarfia is our maid. Joe also has a brother-in-law who has been keeping an eye on my sister Abigail at Eastern State. I pay Joe a stipend on top of his usual salary for work like this, and he’s worth every Lincoln-head cent. Joe is amazing, especially given that the guy only has one arm (which is too bad, but I did the amputation myself and so I know it could not have been helped). Abby may have seen mistreatment, judging by her condition since I brought her back on furlough for the funeral, but that mistreatment is likely only the usual unkindness common in asylums in the South. Staff are kept in check with Joe’s help. I don’t worry a great deal, though Abby has been in the care and keeping of Eastern State for several years. We’re in the stables. Joe’s red hair shines like firelight in the dim barn as I follow him to curry Dancer. The stables are shadowy. If I were a student at the University of Kentucky, as I was not all that long ago, a student who taught grade school and was bettering himself by taking literature courses, I might say the stables wear night robes. I might think it, but I’d never say it out loud.

Dancer is in the middle stall. Joe opens a red halved-door on black iron hinges and swings it wide. The air swills soft hinge sounds. My horse knows me. She comes over to have her head scratched and to nudge my right hand to see if I’ve brought her an apple, which I normally do. I scratch the smudge of a blaze in the center of her head as Joe begins his work.

Joe and I don’t say anything, which makes me think that our relationship is one based on a series of rituals and cues like those Dancer and I share. He doesn’t need me in here right now, Joe, and I should excuse myself and let him work, saying that I’ll be at the house and maybe he’d like to stop up, but I take some time before I pat Dancer’s stare and turn to leave.

Joe is as close to a friend as I have, but what passes between us is mostly of a business nature. A hundred years ago in Kentucky a quarter of the population owned men like Joe. Free blacks even owned slaves themselves. The Louisville Examiner would have brimmed with anti-slavery invective I’d most likely have agreed with whether I defended it or not. And eastern Kentucky was where John Gregg Fee established anti-slavery churches and schools before they ran him out of the state in 1859 after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Maybe it’s a kind of blood memory, the way I see things, but it’s in the history too. Kentucky has always been a house divided when it comes to Negroes. The one-drop rule is the custom but an intelligent man—especially a doctor in 1940—knows the lie. Blood is blood.

I’ve read Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, but I’ve also read Marcus Garvey who just died this past summer. I’ve gone to Louisville and seen the musical Show Boat where a husband pricks his finger and swallows a drop of his mixed-race wife’s blood to avoid a charge of miscegenation. I see hypocrisy and try to live with it without making myself sick.

Joe isn’t talking until he stops brushing my horse. His empty half-sleeve flutters.

So, bring the handcuffs? he asks.

I can report from ten years of brief conversations that Joe sees the bigger picture: how Dancer is essential to my being able to see patients in bad weather because the roads—where there are roads—are primitive. Rudimentary. Both of us believe in horses and don’t want to give up that connection to a past of animal and man working together on mornings when coal smoke floats in the valley like the first breath of a newborn in winter in a wood-heated cabin. Each of us is fond of a good road. We have had that conversation, agreeing there are things about mountain roads that don’t meet the requirements of a road: Creek beds. Rivulets. Paths through the underbrush. Joe knows what it takes these days: A serviceable horse. A good listener who can keep his mouth shut. A pair of handcuffs.

I say, Better to have them and not need them.

. . . . .

I’m a mountain doctor who was first a teacher. Grade school. Quentin Wolff was my daddy. And according to John Rocque’s Map of London, 1746, a 24-sheet folding map (John Rocque handled the surveying and John Pine engravings considered among the best examples of 18th century British cartography), my great-grandfather Benjamin Cann Wolff grew from infancy to boyhood to manhood in a flyblown bar-and-bordello by the Thames called The Paradise Hotel. Ben Cann first came into Kentucky with Daniel Boone around 1775 just after the Siege of Boonesborough and Boone’s court-martial and acquittal. Reynolds Wolff, Ben’s son, carried a copy of the John Rocque map of London on his person for years, unfolding it to point to the section of Georgian London where his father grew up.

That’s where Paradise is, he said—or so my father Quentin reported.

The story goes, Ben Cann worked ships that sailed between the Colonies and England.

He signed on as a stevedore in the port of Charleston. Why my great-grandfather then journeyed from Charleston to North Carolina where he met Boone is anyone’s guess, but the decision resulted in his being in attendance at Boone’s forced departure from Boonesborough. The two were together, thereafter, in Kah-ten-tah-the—Wyandot for the area between the Ohio and Licking rivers. And Ben Cann Wolff was not a young man when he fought off the Shawnee. Stories depict Ben Wolff as lanky but a man of surprising ardor. His lethality was not his chief grace, however. Ben Cann was someone with a full purse and a talent for enlisting aid who oversaw the clearing of land that became the Junction and much of the original construction in that part of Letcher County. He built the town of Neon or caused it to be built, the stone to be quarried and virgin timber felled. (The girth of many of the trees brought down was said to measure a dozen standing men’s outstretched arms and hands touching in a circle around the base.) The work was done by the men Boone left him or, more accurately, who elected to follow anyone but the infamous alcoholic frontiersman when he moved on to Missouri. As a result, Boone’s men became his men. My great-grandfather’s eldest, my grandfather Reynolds Wolff, took it from there and finished Neon, handing off to my father Quentin who handed off to me. You could say the Wolffs know how to make something of what is handed them. You could say that some Wolffs take care of things that no one credits them for having taken care of.

. . . . .

What do I see if I step out from my office and look up and down the main street in the town my grandfather built and my father kept running? I see a town open at both ends, telephone poles nailed against the gray of future. Across the street from my office in Wolff’s Drugstore display window I see stair-stepped copies of Life and the Louisville Examiner—not my idea, but it may be a splendid notion for all I know—and a poster promising “Miss Neon Contest, First Prize One Ton of Coal from the Elkhorn Coal Company.” Farther up the street I can make out the white door to the offices of my lawyer French Hawk, Esq., who worked out a loan for me (and Molly) to build the new house, a loan paid out from my sister’s portion of “disbursements for rents, money received from sale or royalties collected from coal mined,” a loan arranged by the Letcher County Court after they declared Abby an Incompetent. The loan was for the entire cost of our house: $10,000. Mine #2 alone brought in that much a year. Having someone declared an Incompetent has its benefits, though the doing of it is another thing entirely.

Most nights on evening hillsides above Main Street, I see generations of miners and other workingmen in coveralls strip and wash up for dinner. Inside the row houses I know that biscuits steam and gravy from hog meat scents the cramped rooms. I’m welcome in most of the houses.

In town, someone may drop a nickel in a red Coca-Cola machine and slide his purchase out and up and dislodge its cap with a fizz-pop. Railroad men in from the west of the state might be walking the wood sidewalks to the Wolff House where they bed down with whatever lonely woman they can. Maybe I’d have been better served to be a railroad man, looking at the time in the dim and whispering sweet lies about Lexington and the land beyond the hills of Letcher County, but I was born a Wolff and as such there is a great deal more expected of me. I’m the miracle man for my people, an FDR with working legs and a horse named for the country they wish their forefathers had never left and what they do on Saturday nights to forget that life is hard and brief. I don’t say I’m a good man. I’ve done some good.

My sister Abigail is my cross to bear for the simple reason no one else can.

Abby has a history of violence. As her older brother I learned not to turn my back on her nascent rage. Her first marriage ended in divorce after she held a knife to the throat of her then-husband M.O. and took one good swipe at ending his life. M.O. Strong was just what his name said he was—a strapping six-footer with oversize forearms and a threatening manner—but M.O. failed to keep his attention focused on his wife after a quarrel about the temperature of some scrambled eggs she had served. He had gotten up from the table and stormed out of the kitchen. She’d followed—the story was told by their daughter Rose who had gone for help after her father fell back bleeding. According to Rose, M.O. must not have seen Abby approach because the much shorter woman somehow got the drop on the larger man on a set of stairs. Whatever the case, she sliced his throat with a kitchen knife. What saved her was that M.O. was brought to me. I stitched up a laceration that had missed any significant blood vessels and hadn’t penetrated the trachea. After 17 silk sutures I told M.O. that if he wouldn’t press charges I’d make sure that my family allowed him a divorce and threw in the cost of the materials and labor for a new house.

I recall that he sat listening, shamed by his failure to mount anything like a response or afraid the story might be attached to him like a bad haircut or a rumor judged to be more or less true and as hard to fend off as a riotous, much younger wife. M.O. got up from the examination table. Dressed in his bloody clothes. Leaving my office, he said, Sounds about right.

That was not the first (nor was it the last) time Abby answered an injury.

Nor was there one in particular that alerted our family to the possibility she might do harm beyond what even a family with considerable resources can quiet. The next year when she ran Dan Wright up a phone pole and emptied a magazine of forty-five-caliber ammunition in his direction, there was little to be done but commit her. Either that or jail since she was reloading when a bystander struck her with a handy river stone and knocked her unconscious.

Not long after Abby had been committed to Eastern I was alone in my office following the particularly tough delivery of a miner’s first child. I was thinking of our mother and how she read to us from the Bible. I can see how afraid we were—America, our other sister, Abby and me—and I could feel myself stiffen at the description of the End Times, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and some last battle on the plains of the Holy Land our mother said would involve so much bloodshed that the blood would be to the level of the bridles of the horses.

. . . . .

The day that I tell Abby to think about getting her things together, to head back to Eastern, begins with her coming down to breakfast with her housecoat open and nothing on under it. And the flash of her reminds me of a time when, like most women, she had a hopeful womb and ambitions to marry.

Molly is serving breakfast and motions for Abby to close her robe. Abby closes the robe and sits, saying, I am ready like she is going to rise and go to the movies with me and Molly and catch a new show at the Neon. Because I want to fill my head with something other than my sister this morning I try and recall the movie I saw them lettering on the marquee this morning. It stars Henry Fonda—I remember that much—and that the Henry Fonda movie replaces The Wizard of Oz, which I’m told sold out several nights last week. I can’t think of the most recent movie’s title, but it will come to me.

After we eat, Abby heads upstairs. Peacefully. No hoopla. No ruckus. I’m not buying it. I tell Molly what I’m planning. I say, I’ll drive her over to Lexington, drop her, and drive back this evening. And Molly nods. Says, Whatever you want to do.

I kiss my wife on the head and smell the ashes from the morning’s cook-fire in her hair.

I wonder if the clothed me will ever get accustomed to the naked me Molly has always exposed. Outside, I head to fetch Joe who sees me coming and waves with his good arm and waits, wiping that hand on a rag that hangs from the belt at his waist. It’s early, a chill in the air and coal smoke drifting across the valley. My friend the farrier will have been working for hours already. When he isn’t doing work for me, he forges knives and shovels for other people in town.

I see Joe headed out to meet me. Wiping his hand, he has guessed at most of what’s to come and takes up a position at the end of the walkway by the Model-A Ford, Abby’s old car.

I hear the mewing of kittens somewhere nearby. In the vicinity of the stables.

The sound is as light as a wasp’s nest.

Out of nowhere I remember the title of the movie: The Grapes of Wrath.

At the end of the walk Joe holds open the car door for Abby who is now walking like she is walking to the gallows: head down, her gray Samsonite suitcase in both hands and bouncing against her legs as she steps. I’m a step or two behind. The soles of her shoes click on the paving stones on the walk. Let me take that, I say and she releases the suitcase handle.

I say, You remember Joe, don’t you? He’s going to drive us today.

Abby stops and looks back at me. Her look asks what is happening to her.

Joe steps up and snaps one handcuff on her wrist and then steps back—my cue to step up and pull Abby’s arm back so he can snap the other cuff into place.

I drop the suitcase. Move toward Abby. I put my hands on her shoulders.

My sister is stunned but not so stunned she doesn’t react. She spins around and kicks me. I feel my strength leaving: she’s landed a blow to my groin. Out of the edge of my vision I see Joe take hold of Abby’s pale arm and turn her and bring the arm up and snap the other handcuff into place. The skin of his hand is the color of tea and he has hold of Abby’s white-white arm as he deposits her on the seat. Joe is this fellow with one arm who is performing the equivalent of a circus trick: putting the custom-made iron handcuffs on Abby while I try and get to my feet, making sure Abby doesn’t even bump her head, then stepping back as if to announce the completion of his miracle as he closes the door on her side with confident authority.

I manage to get up and put Abby’s bag in back under the rumble seat.

I go around to the driver’s side where Joe is holding the car door.

I slide in. I say, Actually, I’ll be driving. Joe isn’t going.

Abby is moving in the seat. You’re both black bastards, she says.

I take note of what she’s doing and start the car and begin to drive away.

Abby has her stockinged legs up and is kicking the windshield. With her hard-soled shoes—the kicks are having an effect. I hear a crack as the windshield spiders and then lets go and we are sitting in (and covered by) glass. The seats are covered in shards. I pull over.

Joe is there, opening the door to raise Abby from the mess. He scoops her up.

Standing handcuffed by the car, Abby doesn’t so much look at me as stare through me. Her dress is raised. She’s a mess. Stockings and garters are visible. I move to her.

This time, as she tries to knee me, I catch her leg and squeeze. Hard.

You sonofabitch, she says. And then she spits at me.

I feel the wet.

Thoughts of doing her harm tambourine in my head. I say, Joe, you take Miss Neon here to the stables. I’ll see what I can do about rustling up an automobile. And if she gives you any trouble, tie her legs. Abby has cut her thigh on a piece of windshield. Blood is flowing down the front of her right leg. I don’t think about blood memory or slavery or Kentucky’s role in the War of Northern Aggression, then I do. Joe is walking Abby to the stables. She’s going with him, twisting every so often as she goes. I’m trying to think what to say when I get to the house and on the phone to Caudill’s Ford as I wipe the spit from my face.

Read and hear Roy Bentley’s short story “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Roy Bentley About Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley is the author of Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama Press), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press). A new book, Walking with Eve in the Loved City, has been selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and will be publlshed in the spring of 2018 by the University of Arkansas Press. Work from that collection has appeared in Shenandoah, Pleiades, Rattle, Blackbird, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

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