The Falls of the Wyona

I am proud and humbled to announce that my SECOND novel, The Falls of the Wyona, has won this year’s Quill Prize for Fiction and will be published by Red Hen Press. The Falls of the Wyona follows the lives of four boys growing up along the Tennessee/ North Carolina border in the late 1940’s. Below is an excerpt:

 

From Chapter IV of The Falls of the Wyona

Every so often we renewed acquaintance with the Falls of the Wyona. We’d have a boys’ night at one of the old camping spots, hauling our illegal booze and our dirty magazines up from the parking lot– instead of miles on foot through the forest, the way we did when we were kids. The swifts went away in the winter, so on winter junkets we didn’t hang around much at the lip of the Falls, where it was blistering cold anyway. We’d huddle around the fire and crow about how wonderful it was to have the women off our backs for a weekend, how high maintenance they were and all that– though one noted we talked, at least for the first few hours, of very little else. We never opened the magazines. I guess the girly mags were there in case anyone came across us all cuddled up in the dead of night. Tits and ass would make that OK.

Glen wasn’t dating yet, but he’d laugh whenever we’d make a joke about our girls; he’d listen closely when we needed to talk about them seriously. He was good company, the perfect confidant. I assumed his fling with Vince lay way in the past, Vince being such a hound-dog and all these days.

One evening Jake Hannerty sauntered by our camp. He was with the Church Street gang. There were six or seven of them, and we could hear them bellowing and carrying on through the acre of woods that lay between us. A prime weekend night, and all the guys in school were hunched over sloppy little fires with their buddies, complaining about girls–or lusting after the ones they didn’t have–easing out of the tensions of the week. Hannerty had to take a piss or something, and when he walked past us we all waved and looked away, to let him have his privacy, but he stopped dead and said, “Copeland?” Copeland was Glen’s last name.

Glen said, “Hannerty!”

‘Shit man,” Jake said, “Don’t you get enough of this place? I see you every time I come.”

Jake made his way a decent distance into the woods. We could hear him pissing into soft pine needles.  Maybe I was the only one to take heed of what he said. The expectation – tacit, unarticulated, but an expectation nevertheless–was that one would not come to the Falls alone. The surface reason was that it was dangerous. The more subtle reasons included the feeling that it was the setting for the deeds of the Brotherhood, and without the Brotherhood, nothing should happen at all. Maybe I heard wrong. Maybe Hannerty was bullshitting, the way one does.  I was watching Glen. He had that look on his face you have when you’re hoping nobody paid attention to what was just said.  I couldn’t help myself. Vince and Tilden were off doing something, and I took the occasion to say, “So, Glen, you’ve been coming up here yourself?”

“Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Not for. . . not for anything like that.”

Glen saw that I had no idea what “that” meant. He sighed. He opened his backpack and pulled out a canvas bag. It wasn’t a bag, really, but a flat sheet of khaki canvas rolled around and around layers of something. Slowly he unrolled the bag. Inside, pressed flat between sheets of wax paper, and then rolled up like precious oil paintings, were fern leaves and liverworts and bright feathers fallen from birds Glen might have known but I did not.

“What do you call that?”

“Oh. . . specimens. I don’t know.”  Glen shrugged, but it was all right. He was a collector. A scientist. That was all right. It was firmly among the activities that would have been all right. I sighed in relief of a danger averted, without knowing exactly what the danger might be.

Tilden and Vince had been back in camp for about ten seconds when a commotion arose in the temporarily overpopulated woods. I thought they’d set fire to something or taken a crap on somebody’s bedroll, but when the noise began– most of it seemed to come from the Church Street camp– they looked as bewildered as anybody. Jake Hannerty came sprinting back through the woods. He was tall and lanky, and looked like a giraffe loping on, pushing the pine boughs to one side or the other. The look on his face was not graceful. “Hansen!. . . Hansen!” he managed to gasp out.

Glen said, “Hansen? What do you mean? Timmy Hansen?” Hannerty nodded frantically and continued flying through woods. We could hear him a way off crying “Hansen! Hansen!” at the next circle of sleeping bags.  It would have been nice if we hadn’t known what he meant, but we did. Tilden jumped up and stamped out the fire. We all got ourselves arranged and lit out at a dead run for the brink of the Falls.  The upper reaches of the gorge came alive with boys climbing up and down crying “Timmy! Timmy!” If he’d answered, I don’t know how he would have been heard in the din, but adrenalin was so high it was not the time to try to talk it down.

This kid we all knew, Marky. . . Marky something, sat on a stone with his feet in the water. When we first came out of the trees, his face hid in his hands, but he lifted it up in a second and screamed. His face was red and swollen. You had to pay close attention to make out what he was screaming. It was: I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED! HE WAS RIGHT THERE! HE WAS JUST FUCKING RIGHT THERE! His face would fall back into his hands, and a couple of the Church Street boys would pat him and coo to him that it was all right. Everybody knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t all right. In a minute the scarlet swollen face, streaming tears, reared up again, howling: I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED! HE WAS RIGHT THERE! HE WAS JUST FUCKING RIGHT THERE! Easy to read.

Marky and Timmy had been horsing around at the rim of the Falls, showing off for one another. Marky looked down to swat a deerfly on his leg, and when he looked up, Timmy Hansen was gone. It was that simple. The Falls got at least one every generation. That was the lore. That was the truth as we told it.  No one would admit to heaving a sigh of relief that the sacrifice for our generation was now known and accomplished.

We kept climbing around and screaming for the kid, but we all pretty much knew what would be found in the plunge pool at the bottom of the falls. Someone had jumped into a car and headed for town, for about an hour into the drama, the police cruisers showed up.

Chief Dadlez had come up from Asheville to helm the village force right at the New Year, and so far he had been all about garnering good will, helpful and cheerful and spruce, getting kittens out of drain pipes, that sort of thing. I didn’t see him when he arrived at the gorge rim, but Vince said it took him a while to get oriented and organize a party to find the body. We were ahead of him there.  I knew the trails and the footholds pretty well, so I managed to get to the floor of the gorge, all the way down.

The spray of the falls cooled my sweat. I could hear boys hollering over the roar of the water; none seemed to have gotten down this far. I hoped they’d stop trying, so nobody else would fall. I slipped my way over the slick rocks toward the plunge pool. Rainbow stood in concentric arches over the green moss and the blinding white stone. There were seagulls, two of them anyway, wheeling and soaring as though the din were surf and not a plunging river. I stopped myself from noticing how beautiful everything was. It was not the time.  Down by the pool there were two shapes. One was horizontal, a body, shedding red plumes into the relatively calm pool it had drifted into. The other was vertical, standing by the water: Glen Copland. The light hit his Boy Scout knapsack covered with patches so it looked like a tropical bird had landed on his shoulders.  The force of waters buffeted Timmy’s body slowly to shore. Glen waited for it. When he was close enough, Glen knelt down and pulled Timmy in by his baggy denim cuff. I know I could have run and helped, but I sensed something sacred going on, that I should stay out of it until I got the signal. So I watched as Glen hauled the poor broken boy out of the water. Timmy was bigger than Glen, so it wasn’t easy, but Glen got him out onto the encircling shingle of round stones. Glen didn’t know what to do now any more than I would have, so he knelt down and took Timmy in his arms, to keep him warm until help came. I walked to their side then. I didn’t know what to do except to hold Glen as Glen was holding Timmy.

At last the firemen came with ropes and a canvas stretcher. Dadlez had held them up for some regulation or other, but when he finally set them loose, the firemen, who were town boys too, muscled down the same paths and footholds we all knew.

It had been a while since the Falls had taken anybody. The town had forgotten how to deal with it. People looked at each other in the streets with the look that said, “What are we supposed to do?” They put Timmy’s face on a poster and stapled it up in the grocery stores and on the church bulletin boards. They were up a long time, the posters were, until they faded too much and someone took them down. He was a good kid. Everybody liked him. We all knew the Hansen family. It was just awful. Nobody admitted to thankfulness that there remained three sisters and two other brothers in the family. The numbers of the remnant didn’t make it any better, but they kept it from being worse.

Chief Dadlez reacted to the tragedy by closing the park. This was a mistake on many levels. For one thing, you could close the park (which was a parking lot and a few picnic tables) without limiting access to the Falls very much. Most of us came up through the woods paths anyway. The cove boys used the imposing metal “Keep Out By Police Order” signs for target practice. They made a lovely “ting” when hit with bird shot.

But Dadlez had a hard-on about this. He kept throwing people in jail for being at the Falls, until the county prosecutors told him to stop because they weren’t going to prosecute. They made him take the barricades away, it being State property and not the chief’s private domain. We understood, though. We never wanted to go through that again either. Had Dadlez been local he would have understood that safety is achieved not by barricades, but by brother looking after brother.

Marky was a mess for months, not because anyone blamed him (they didn’t) but because he was supposed to look out for Timmy, and for the briefest and most excusable instant, he had not.  The chief did have thick blue lines painted at the cliffs’ edge, to tell people how close it was safe to come. Nobody begrudged him that. He ordered the lines repainted and repainted until long after people–except the people who were there– had forgotten who Timmy Hansen was. It was a time when parents would almost never ask “where are you going?, ”  for there was almost no conceivable trouble one could het into in our little town. They asked then, for a while. “Where are you going,?“ they’d hiss, as if tigers and rapists lurked just outside the door. You learned never to answer “To the Falls,” for what was the use in upsetting them? The Falls would have whom it wanted.

Furthermore, the Falls claimed one every generation, and Timmy Hansen had made us all safe until we had sons of our own.

 

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