The Brown Veil
Everything seemed washed in brown at that moment. The color of filth, dried blood, old photos. Brown was the color of the Texas-shaped birthmark on my right arm. I hated brown.
I stood behind the tractor shed—out of range of my mother’s voice. I picked up a small twig and tossed it hard toward the tracks. Two more tries, but I was too far away. Eight, maybe ten giant steps, and I could have been standing beside the creosote-baked wooden ties or kneeling to press my ear against the iron rail to listen for adventure. I stayed where I was—afraid my mother would catch me violating her most sacred rule.
"You don’t get anywhere near those tracks, you here me? There been two boys killed already these last five years. I’m not gonna bury you in pieces."
It was the “pieces” thing that kept me from disobeying. I extended my right arm and used the edge of my left hand like a dull saw hacking at the birthmark below my elbow. Maybe the train could take just one piece. I thought it over carefully. Not today, I decided. There were still ways I could get back at Richard Evans without giving up my arm.
I put all of my anger into one more toss of a twig that came within two feet of the iron road. Close enough. Under a clump of chokeberry brush, I nestled against the shed with my backbone resting between two corrugated ribs and played my fingers in the crumbs of old leaves.
Richard Evans. He wasn’t the only one. The whole of the seventh grade shunned me. Richard said it was because I had the mark of a witch, but I knew that wasn’t the reason. They all hated me because I was smarter than them. My teacher knew it, too. After lunches, she would read my stories to the class. Mrs. Dobson must have known something about the loneliness. More than once she let me finish late homework during study hour, and she never called on me if I didn’t raise my hand. Always my left hand.
I peered through the dangling leaves at the arrow-straight tracks and wondered how far I could get if I started walking. Probably no farther than Harper’s Road. Suppertime was not so far away now, and Mother would come looking.
A sudden shiver crawled off the rails and washed through the bush, through me and the shed. It was the same vibration that shook the ground whenever the Santa Fe came rolling past the house. I waited, but there was no sign of a train. I considered stepping out of the bushes to look, but a figure across the tracks stopped me. It was Richard standing under the lone oak across the rails. I hadn’t noticed him before. He stood in the dark brown shade and looked right at the bush where I sat. For the longest time, I thought he could see me, but then he turned and looked up and down the tracks as if he was lost. I wondered how he’d gotten so far from town. Perhaps he had come to hurt me like he always promised. He said I would be sorry. He never said what for.
The last time he had threatened was when he found me before school in the maze of scaffolding under the bleachers. I was not supposed to be in the gym, but then, neither was he. At first I thought he was hunting me down, but he said he always came the morning after a game to look for things that people dropped out of their pockets.
“And why are you here? Hiding out, little witch?” He threw the accusation like a dart.
If I had admitted that I was, he would have been free to unleash whatever punishment he saw fit to reward my cowardice. I stalled for time, hoping someone else would walk into the gym.
“This is where I think up my stories.” I looked for an opening through the scaffolding and wondered if I could outmaneuver him.
Richard eyed me suspiciously. “How come I haven’t seen you here any other time, then?” His arms tensed, and I fidgeted sideways.
“I don’t come every day.” My voice was not as sincere as I’d hoped. My half-truths were enough to weaken my defenses, and I bowed my head and started to cry.
“Sissy,” Richard hissed, “just like I thought. Your witchy power doesn’t work on me.” He reached for my hair and pulled me through one of the supporting crossbars. I cried out from the pain but was determined not to call for help. I knew well enough how that would only fuel his hatred.
When he had me snugged into his small space—crammed up against him—he twisted his fingers tighter in my hair and said, “If I ever catch you here again I’m gonna burn all your stories. I might even burn you.” He smiled a horrid smile. “That’s what they do to witches.” His fingers sprung open sending my head sideways against a strut. That time I kept silent.
Now, I shivered in the bushes on my side of the tracks and watched him stand placidly beneath the spreading oak. Something about him seemed less threatening, but I was not about to give myself away. Hidden from the late afternoon sun, I waited for him to leave.
The sun had just slipped away leaving only a sepia glow over the russet landscape. Richard was still there. I wondered how he could stand for so long, like petrified wood except for the occasional twist of his head. I worried that Mother would be worried. Surely she would have come to look for me by now. As I watched Richard stare the length of the tracks, I had a dreadful thought. What if he set fire to my house to burn my stories like he’d promised? My heart quickened to a pounding pace. What if Mother didn’t make it out?
I hated the sight of him. I hated the bony fingers he tangled in my hair and poked at me whenever no one was watching. I hated the dead blackbird he had boxed and stuff inside my locker right before he covered it in red marker. Witch! Witch! I hated him for what I knew he was capable of doing. If I ran for the house, my safe haven might be nothing but ashes. My mother still hadn't come calling.
Richard turned and walked along the grassy edge of the right-of-way. Through the leaves, I followed his movements and waited until I could crawl safely from my hiding spot. When I came into the open, he was standing further down his side of the tracks opposite my mother. She was staring down at the rails. Neither one said a thing.
Feeling stronger with her presence, I walked along the graveled flanks of the cross ties and stopped a few feet from Mother’s left arm. In the umber light, I noticed that she was crying. I wanted to tell her not to be afraid of the stupid bully. I wanted to hold her hand as much to calm my own fear as hers, but if I broke the spell, Richard might choose to carry out his threats. My mother was bigger and stronger than him, but at this particular moment, she seemed weak.
A distant wail of sour notes intruded upon our little standoff. Mother’s head jerked left, and even in the deep light of dusk, I could see she looked right through me. Her eyes fixed on the tiny spark—the single shaft of light coming from the distant iron beast as it proclaimed its authority. I saw her chocolate eyes, and I saw the tan beam of the locomotive’s headlamp. Her eyes in front of me, the beam behind me, and I saw them at the same moment. Frightened, I reached for her hand only to grasp empty air.
Mother stepped forward and dropped to her knees in front of the first rail. “Jesse,” she sobbed, and her voice dissipated into the brown surroundings. “You should have told me.”
I pushed past the fear and opened up my own voice. “Told you what?”
She never responded.
I looked toward Richard who stood motionless, staring at her. Nothing about him was the same as I remembered. He was small, sad, less of a specter silhouetted against the open field. I wondered why I had ever let him get such a hold over me.
The train signaled another crossing perhaps two miles out. Mother leaned forward and placed both hands on the rail. Her words fell like stones from the air. “You should have said. I could have saved you.” Her weeping grew more violent, and she began to rock forward and backward on her knees. Her hands still gripped the rusted rail.
“Told you what?” I repeated, and this time I looked at Richard. He knew. It was the reason he was here.
My mother twisted sideways and lay down beside the track.
“Mom!” I shouted, “you’re too close!” In answer, the wailing whistle marked the next county road. “Richard! Tell her she’s too close!”
Richard watched her in silence.
Feet pointed toward the oncoming train, face to the sky, my mother draped her right arm across the iron. Inside her forearm, right below the elbow, was her birthmark in the shape of Texas—our mother-daughter curse. “Take it,” she said to the sienna sky.
I ran to the tracks and pawed at her arm. In desperation, I stood and kicked at it, but nothing touched nothing. I yelled. I cried. I slapped her face, but still her arm lay passive and accepting of its fate.
I ran toward Richard. “Don’t let her do this! It’s all your fault! You can’t let her do this!”
The train sent its mounting grumble out into the landscape as the beam from its headlamp cast a faint shadow from Mother’s arm. The bitter chord of the devil himself shrieked at us, told of the one-mile mark of Harper’s Road. I lunged at Richard with all my might. When our bodies touched, a surge of energy gathered in the sky and came rolling down over our bodies and out across the meadow like a discharged bolt of lightening. With the surge came a flood of vibrant, colorful images—Richard red-faced and taunting, my book bag torn open on the tracks, two children caught beneath a train but not this train. It was clear in an instant, and then I was through him. One ghost through another. The night was dark coffee again. I turned to stare at his back and realized that Richard was here for my mother.
The beam from the locomotive now cast an illuminating spotlight on her rag-doll form. The froggy, constant scream of the whistle was overcome by the piercing metal-on-metal squeal of wheels braking, as if they could stop in time. Richard walked to the center of the tracks and bent down. I saw my mother’s arm recoil to safety.
Richard stood, turned to me, smiled. And then the train took him. I’m not sure to where.
The chocolate darkness shifted to indigos and deep greens. There were faint odors of hot metal and new grass. I ran to my mother’s side and cried over and over how glad I was that they would not be burying her in pieces. I touched her birthmark, and she sucked in a short breath before rubbing her arm.
She lay in the open of the sapphire sky and waited for deliverance from her suffering. A half mile down the track the train had struggled to a stop, and flashlights began to dance in our direction. The oppressive fear lifted, exposed the hatred it had veiled.
I reached for a fallen leaf and placed it in the palm of my mother’s hand. She clutched the leaf, blown there by the wind, and I said the one thing that I thought might save her—save us both.
“You will have to forgive him, Mother.” I watched for any sign of recognition on her face. “Someday, you and I will have to forgive him.”
I stood and moved to the center of the tracks. When I was sure my mother would be cared for, I turned toward Harper’s Road. The next train would be mine to catch.