They meet by chance on a Georgia road: William Wesley Johns, a middle-aged novelist with a manuscript to mail, and the girl with two fiddle cases who hitches a ride. In a lonesome spot the fan belt breaks, so Johns and the girl, Jo, who is as independent as a bird and as spontaneously musical, set out through the woods to find help. What they find instead is an absorbing adventure, a cast of backwoods people, and a strange journey down a haunting river. The bizarre events among the primitive people they meet in the woods parallel the discovery by Johns of the subterranean realities of his own life, which he has tried to ignore. At the center is the girl, intuitive and unpredictable, who is responsible both for the adventure and for the discovery. Brilliantly conceived and executed, The Winter Rider was originally published by Lippincott in 1960, when Berry Fleming was 61 years old. The novel is filled with the spellbinding imagery and introspection that mark Mr. Fleming's serious fiction.
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The Winter Rider
By Berry Fleming
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1988 Berry Fleming
All rights reserved.
The bell in the rusty tower of the courthouse struck nine while one of the Cloud boys was filling the gas tank, Usry, I think, though I could still hardly tell them apart. I asked him about Thirty-two, largely to say something to somebody, feeling good, expansive in the fine sharp morning, the air smelling of rosin and pitch and turpentine from the pine forest all about, of damp from the green-black river out in it somewhere, of wood smoke from the stoves and fireplaces in the back streets. Old man Cloud was sitting in the sun beside a rack of oil cans watching us, watching everything, eyes hopping about in the shade of his black hat like birds in a thicket. Thirty-two was the sixty-mile straightaway to the coast and the nearest Air-Express stop I could find (Jasmine Island, outside of Waltonville); I hadn't been over it this time, what with finishing up the job and all. It crossed the big north-south highway at the corner there beyond the station sign.
Usry didn't answer right off for looking out at the weather-streaked wall of the great truck blubbering to a halt at the light, then he said, "I believe they're working on it. Ask papa. Papa, he wants to know about Thirty-two." I was just "he" and "him," had been from the first, though they must have known my name well enough; I ran an account there, and they knew everything anyhow. A little way of being independent, of showing you there were things you couldn't buy, things you couldn't just walk in and have, no matter how many old plantations you and your friends bought up with your new money, how many deer you shot and turkeys and quail. I had explained I was just a visitor, just roughing it in the guest house. "Mr. Dukes is in New York. The big house is closed." They didn't care, or pretended not to; I was one of "them" or I wouldn't have been visiting—disregarding my car and the retreads and the seventy-four thousand miles on the out-of-date speedometer.
The old man said there was a nine-mile detour other side of Rucker, they had a bridge out, but I could get through. "Folks are generally going round on Fourteen to—" cutting off to watch the truck and the kid in a long brown coat getting down spryly from the cab. She reached up for a pasteboard suitcase looped with cord, then up again for a canvas-covered violin case and up again for another one just like it (maybe a little smaller); then, the light going green, she lifted a chalky hand at the driver, turned her back on the thunderbursts and walked matter-of-factly up the apron to the Ladies. When she had disappeared he picked it up where he had dropped it. "Yulee and One-forty to Deenwood."
I said that made it a lot farther, didn't it? and he said sure do, leaving it with me.
I gave it up and went across the street to the Naylor Hotel and sent the telegram to Dukes junior I had been composing in my head. manuscript off to graham air express this afternoon heartiest congratulations to you both Love Johns. Sassy, but I felt like a surgery convalescent the day food tastes like food again. Then I sent one to Graham at the magazine, a not-sassy one, remembering the trouble I had been; I added that the short copy was his and would he kindly send the long one up the street to Dukes? He would probably phone Tom Dukes to send for it himself but it would get there one way or another and it saved me an extra package. (I had a second carbon at the guest house, though I have never lost a manuscript in the mail in what the newspapers might call a long and checkered career.)
I stopped in the bank and got a hundred dollars, more than I needed but I've come to like the safe side, maybe always have. Young Baxley, counting it, said, "You're not leaving us, Mr. Johns? You're so citified," and I said not quite; I was going to the coast on business but I would be back tonight for a few days more. If I hadn't lived out of the South for so long I might have detailed it that I was in my best tweed and flannel because I planned to blow myself to a celebration of cocktails and broiled pompano among the expensive suntans at The West Green.
When I came out of the bank she was talking to the old man, standing six or eight feet away from him and looking like a kindly bear with the overcoat nearly to the concrete, front open, cloth belt dangling; it made her seem almost hunchbacked, stooping a little at him anyhow, straight yellow hair caught in a tail behind (by a red rubber band, I was to note). She turned toward me as I crossed the street and I noticed she was wearing some sort of loose blue wraparound dress that was either homemade or might have been, and the usual flats. I thought I had never seen a young person quite so cumbersome, so unappealing. But an even more unappealing picture pushed that one out of my mind; I suddenly knew what they were talking about as well as if I had been standing between them.
And sure enough, as I slipped under the wheel and tried to make my door catch without banging, the brown squirrel coatcollar appeared in the other window. I thought she was smiling but it may have been just the way her mouth was formed, the even white front teeth so large that unless she deliberately stretched her lips to cover them she might seem to be smiling, or at any rate intent and eager. I didn't look at her eyes because I am not one for picking up hitchhikers and I was putting together a fast lie about where I was going, but they seemed to give off a quiet pale color that reminded me of the blue of gooseberries we used to gather in the country when I was a boy; her face looked as long as a pony's.
Then I realized the old man knew where I was going and had undoubtedly posted her, and I caught sight, anyway, of the heavy cube of my neatly corded package on the seat and felt again the general benevolence its being there seemed to spread over my view of the world and everyone in it. I breathed a sigh and laid the violin cases, one after the other, on the back seat for her while she heaved in the suitcase and then herself, coming in headfirst with gathered coat wings like a martin into a gourd.
Beyond an offhand "Thanks" she didn't say anything, either then or as we rolled away, arranging herself briefly and familiarly as if in a satisfactory seat by the window of a crosscountry bus, folding her hands in the wide blue lap; I was the driver and presumably competent or the company wouldn't have hired me, and she turned her attention to the flat little sand-cast edge-of-the-forest town beyond the glass—two boys with earflaps, running, late for school, a colored woman brushing pine needles off the sidewalk with a homemade broom of sedge like the kind witches used to ride, a loosejointed wagon from the country with a load of wired lightwood fagots, and after a scattered settlement of gray cabins, the pines that were going to be with us all the way, an hour and a half, probably, with the detour.
She was obviously used to riding with strangers, knew the etiquette. Apparently conversation wasn't required or even expected for she sat there, just riding, comfortable, relaxed, as if she had paid for her ticket and had some cash left over. Once, a few miles out, she lifted a finger toward a large bird disappearing above the skinny trees and said buzzard. I said, "Hawk." I was no ornithologist but I was still Southerner enough to know a buzzard. And the silence returned; it wouldn't have surprised me if she had unrolled a pulpy comic book and started reading or taken out a paper bag of fruit. And not offered me any. Passing a miserable little clutch of houses called Belle Vista I began to wonder if she was silent waiting for me to start tossing out the menu of leading questions we adults are usually supposed to provide (complete with fond wistful nostalgic smile back toward the golden young) and I asked the first one that came to mind, "Are those violins you've got there?"
She said, "They're not sub machineguns," turning the bared front teeth on me like a white light.
She said it on one time level, not from youth to age; I guess that was what I liked about it. You get that way as your hair grays out a little and your coat pocket sags with a case of reading glasses. I said something like you can't tell nowadays. I thought she might go on with it but she didn't, turning back to the window and the woods and the weak January sunlight even now thinning out with the overcast. I started to say why two? but I didn't care.
I was glad it was developing I didn't have to make talk; didn't have to make attention, either, to the two-dimensional talk of the young. Most young people today are already accomplished bores, with their bland assumption that the rest of us envy them their newness; they are as patronizing as a Chamber of Commerce president to a mere artist. I have no children of my own but the nieces and nephews underfoot during the couple of days I took off for Christmas did nothing to change my view. "The only thing you kids can do better than I can," I had had a middle-ager say in my book (one of the spots Graham had penciled), "is run and dance and stay up all night." "And make love better." "That's what you think, Junior." Look here, Bill. Patiently. The people who are going to read this yarn are the proud mothers of American youth—and so forth and so forth. And out it went; with much else too; I haven't been stubborn with editors for many years. She was about the age of Graham's pair, I figured. Twenty-four or five. Graham, that distinguished man of letters who was running the book, or the biggest part of it, in his May, June, July issues and would be mailing out, possibly this week, a check for just about the same number of thousands, Miss, I thought, glancing at her pink ear, as you have had birthdays. It was a nice topic to muse about and I was glad she showed no sign of obtruding into the dream.
There were so many delectable paths and views and vistas to it I felt I could never exhaust the sweetness. I had had some modest successes, very modest, ten to fifteen thousand; a couple of stillborns too (one particularly still, All the Month of March, which, perhaps defiantly, I have always been partial to), though Dukes & Son seemed satisfied enough with the over-all, Son certainly. I had never had anything like this, with magazine publication contracted for and two movie companies calling in, Tom wrote me, for an advance look at the script and, they all agreed in whispers, a better than even chance at a book club, considering what we had and what looked like a lucky break in competition developing round the July date we were aiming at. Dukes senior, who I suspect had never read the others, never been able to wade through, had sat up half the night with this one, called me the next morning with mellifluent curses for the sleep I had made him lose, sent me down to the "shooting-box" in style to iron out the wrinkles Graham had pointed to, sent Tom down solicitously when the ironing seemed to be taking longer than they had planned, fixed it up with Graham for a two-week extension on the original deadline and then a one-week extension on the extension. I had overrun even that by three days, but it was all right; I talked to Graham on the phone, a brief, rather wintry, conversation. Have it on my desk, Bill, Thursday morning without fail. It'll be there.—And it would be. This was Wednesday, twenty-four hours to do it in; eight for the sixty miles to Waltonville and the rest for the rest.
And it was not only the financial angle, not only connecting at last after so many misses; somewhere high up in the East Seventies there would be a quite handsome woman with an expression on her face I should have given a royalty check to see. "You are through, Bill," angry at something else but meaning that too. "Finished. You simply don't have the— the what it takes." She really had a knack at infuriating me. Something about Little Magazine tastes on a mass-media talent. Livia.
Of course that wasn't the whole story behind our divorce but I don't believe What's-his-name would have seemed half so irresistible if I had hit the jack pot three years ago instead of now. We had had a house at Montargis before the war, happy years they seemed to look back on though there must have been plenty of seedlings of trouble, notably the one that I had failed to see for its very obviousness, that, having swapped another for me, she might one day swap me for still another. I used to smile at the fact that she pulled her paper matches off the left side of the swatch and I off the right, but it may have been more prophetic of our differences than funny. She had gone to school in Switzerland, had acquired a good deal of the European woman's simply expert feminineness; I had loved her for the way she stood, for her quiet hands, for the tilt she sometimes gave her chin, and for much less superficial things too of course. She lost a lot of that after we came back to Connecticut, or I thought so. It doesn't matter. I remember how different I felt about the early Italian paintings I saw in the Vatican from the ones transplanted to the Metropolitan; ours are possibly just as good but they had never meant anything to me. Maybe the fault was mine, both in the case of Giotto and of Livia; it doesn't matter. Our paths have never crossed and probably never will but I liked to think of her tripping over my success at every turn next summer and fall and winter—a petty craving but mine own.
I am not a fast driver. I wanted to get back to the plantation before dark because I don't much like night driving anyway and like it even less through this sort of desolation, but there was all the time in the world. My idea was to deliver the manuscript to the express office in Waltonville a little before eleven (the plane didn't leave until six-fifteen) and then turn the car over to the dealer to install the new muffler and tail pipe which one of the Cloud boys had warned me about; I thought I would get a haircut while he did the job, then I would drive out over the marshes, which at this time of year would stretch away to nothing like a Nebraska wheat field but violet-colored, to The West Green for my clean transparent cocktails, my pompano, my down-the-nose survey of the svelte idleness, and a long relaxing stare at the Atlantic. I like to look at the sea, to "Seek it in the water wherein it sank of yore"—the "it" being, for me, whatever you had lost, or hadn't yet found to lose.
I should be back at the plantation before the plane left, having by then turned my eyes toward New York's Northern Lights glowing at the end of the shortest line I could draw to them.
I put the needle between fifty-five and sixty and held it there, the road streaking through the pines straightaway like the taper of a billiard cue, nothing on it whatever except now and then a scrawny small cow that took it into her head the grass was better on the other side; there weren't many and usually they stayed where they were.
It is flat country, grave and cheerless for all the green of the pines. The gradient, I have read somewhere, runs about a foot in half a mile. Every eight or ten miles the map shows a dot with a name beside it—Tarboro, New Lacy, Gardi, Rucker—but when you come to the dot it is two or three ash-colored houses, maybe a vintage gas pump, a few cans on a shelf inside a speckled window, and you are through it almost without noticing. And nowhere much when you are through it, one mile like the mile before, Odessa almost indistinguishable from Belle Vista. It made me think of time, not pressing time, just laid-out horizontal time, spans of time; not the time clicking away on my wrist.
Beyond a handful of sheds that once might have been a turpentine still, I slowed down at the sight of a great hunchbacked shape moving out on to the black road a mile ahead; it was one of those Brahmany bulls you see down there sometimes, brought in from India to improve the strain, or maybe just to help it hold its own, used to loneliness and unfriendly pastures. I pointed. It always gave me a shock to see them, so far from home, so out of their own place, so peculiarly ancient on this new sea-floor land; you can almost hear the temple bell of another philosophy. As we went by he gazed away from us round his hump out over the flat wiregrass as if sniffing for a ghat or a stupa or a scent of the Ganges, alien to everything round him except the spans of indifferent time.
Excerpted from The Winter Rider by Berry Fleming. Copyright © 1988 Berry Fleming. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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