In Gods of Howl Mountain, award-winning author Taylor Brown explores a world of folk healers, whiskey-runners, and dark family secrets in the high country of 1950s North Carolina (available March 20, 2018).
Bootlegger Rory Docherty has returned home to the fabled mountain of his childhood—a misty wilderness that holds its secrets close and keeps the outside world at gunpoint. Slowed by a wooden leg and haunted by memories of the Korean War, Rory runs bootleg whiskey for a powerful mountain clan in a retro-fitted '40 Ford coupe. Between deliveries to roadhouses, brothels, and private clients, he lives with his formidable grandmother, evades federal agents, and stokes the wrath of a rival runner.
In the mill town at the foot of the mountains—a hotbed of violence, moonshine, and the burgeoning sport of stock-car racing—Rory is bewitched by the mysterious daughter of a snake-handling preacher. His grandmother, Maybelline “Granny May” Docherty, opposes this match for her own reasons, believing that “some things are best left buried.” A folk healer whose powers are rumored to rival those of a wood witch, she concocts potions and cures for the people of the mountains while harboring an explosive secret about Rory’s mother – the truth behind her long confinement in a mental hospital, during which time she has not spoken one word. When Rory's life is threatened, Granny must decide whether to reveal what she knows … or protect her only grandson from the past.
HOWL MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINA
The machine started at dusk, headlights slashing their way down the old switchbacks that ribbed the mountain’s slopes, thunder and echo of thunder vaulting through the ridges and hollers on every side. The road sawed down out of the high country, angling against valleys welled with darkness, past ridges hewn by dynamite, at times following the pale sinews of logging roads that lashed these hills half a century before. It poured ever east, the motor thrumming long miles through the darkening country of the foothills, the machine leaving in its wake a ghost of dust that settled on mailboxes and ranging cattle and tobacco fields already reaped. The road fell and fell again, surrendering to the speed of the machine, the fire of the engine, while stars wheeled out over the land.
The long bends unwound before the car’s nose, the roadside produce stands and billboards and barns big enough to hide the cars of badged men. The road crested a rise and the land lay nearly naked against the sky, vast and blue. The ragged lights of the mill town burned in the distance, borne up on the swells of the Piedmont. The town of Gumtree. Soon the road was humming, paved, plunging through great stands of hardwoods. The mills rose long and hulking on their bluff over the town, pouring black smoke from their many stacks, like ocean liners on a sea of earth. Window after window brightly lit, as if people were having fun in there, a party or a ball. Men and women came down out of the mountains to toil all hours in the heat of those lint-blown rooms, making socks and hose. Second shift ended at ten o’clock. The workers would emerge coughing and white-dusted from those brick bowels like ghost-people, ready for a nip of the hot.
The machine crossed the dam into town. The valley had been flooded for power two decades before; the dam discharged its row of flat white waterfalls under the moon. The car rounded the town square, the big motor rattling the darkened storefronts like man-brought thunder. There was the grocery, the pharmacy, the five-and-dime. The jeweler, the shoe shop, the hardware store. The places where the mill-hands bought on credit, the payments deducted from their wages. The machine drove on, the working neighborhoods assembling before its hood, the low little mill-owned houses huddled close with square, close-cropped yards. Homes so narrow a man could shoot a shotgun and hit every room. Some had. The car drove between them and past them, out into the edges of town where the road descended slowly, gradually, toward the lake.
End-of-the-Road, they called it. The last vestige of town before it was swallowed underwater. Shothouses and bawdyhouses reared out of the bottomland trees, houses for anything a body might want. Their windows a sickly yellow, flickering with shadows. A place for a drink and a fight, a strange bed, strange stars shooting through strange skies if a man dared look. Past that, the road daggered into the depths. Down there was the valley of old, where people had lived so long before the mills came, hungry for power. There were cabins down there, it was said, open-doored to the fishes, their heart-pine floors drowned and cold. There were trees, stunted and lifeless, wavering in the depths as if brushed by slow-motion wind. The bones of land creatures riddled the depths, inhabitants given no warning of the coming flood. The clap of axes and stammer of engines did not carry the weight of thunder or bruised skies. Not yet. Some mean-tempered old tobacco croppers were said to have stayed on their lands when the water came, to spite the government, but most doubted it. It was easy to doubt it all, the lake so flat and calm, a thing whose secrets would never surface.
The first order of the night was a broken-down bungalow with barred windows, the siding curly-cued as if someone had taken a putty knife to it. An indention in the roof housed a dark pool of old rainwater. The lawn was red-churned with tire tracks. Beat-up sedans sat willy-nilly in the grass. Slouching figures stood in line before the kitchen window, their shoulders showered in what looked like flour. Coins glinted in their hands.
Twenty-five cents a shot.
Their eyes were wide when the machine—a Ford coupe—rumbled past them, heading to the back of the house. It parked and the driver climbed out, his face hidden beneath an ancient black bowler hat. He knocked on the door and heard them unbarring it from the inside, the clack after clack of deadbolts unlocked.
The door opened. A white man in a stained apron stepped out. Fat. His face and hair had an unwholesome sheen. The stoop trembled beneath him as he descended.
“Thought you weren’t coming,” he said. “Revenuers?”
“None tonight,” said Rory.
The man shrugged and handed him a wad of bills. Rory unlocked the trunk.
With each stop the lake drew closer, the road ever sliding toward the blank darkness beyond the trees. With each stop the patrons were drunker, meaner. Some of them who got this deep down the road, they didn’t come back.
Granny May held a match to the end of her corncob pipe. Her cheeks hollowed, her chest swelling with smoke. She held a double lungful tickling in her breast. There was no harsh sting, as with tobacco. She rocked back and unhinged her jaw, releasing a blue ghost of smoke into the dawn. The world lay wet before her, dark, carrying the last bruises of night. There were the mountains, ridged like crumbling battlements, and the dewy meadow of her home.
She squinted down her nose, eyeing the tree in the yard. This tree, lone survivor of the blight, stood as centerpiece of all she surveyed from her porch. The others of its kind, chestnuts, had once covered these mountains, the bark of their trunks deeply furrowed, age-twisted like the strands of giant steel cables. Their leaves sawtoothed, golden this time of year, when the falling nuts fattened the beasts of the land, sweetening their meat. That army of hardwoods had fallen, victims of death-black cankers that starved and toppled them. Some exotic fungus had slipped in through wounds in their bark, the work of antlers or claws or penknives. This tree stood alone in the meadow, crowned high against the impending light.
A spirit tree.
Multicolored glass bottles, too many to count, dangled from the branches on tied strings. The evils come skulking over the far hills, out of the lightless hollers and dry wells—the bottles captured such spirits. Contained them. Kept them out of the house, out of her grandson’s dreams and heart. When the wind came sawing across the meadow, you could hear them moaning in their bottles, trapped. The spirits were mean, she thought, but they weren’t very smart.
The first car came rocking up the drive just after sunup. It was a fancy coupe in green, a low-slung Hudson that chugged in the dawn, sized like something that moved in herds. A girl got out from the passenger side. She had a heavy shawl clutched over her shoulders, piled on like a burden. The boy driving the car sat hunched behind the wheel, scowling. He didn’t cut the engine. The girl stood at the bottom of the steps.
“Morning, ma’am. Are you Maybelline Docherty? Granny May?”
“I am. What is it I can do for you?”
The girl looked back at the car smoking in the yard.
“That’s Cooley Muldoon,” she said. “He’s engaged to a girl over in Linville? We, we had us a accident in the car last night.”
Granny May squinted at the rumbling machine. The new sun glowed on the glass, shivered on the hood. Not a scratch on the paint.
The girl held out her hands.
“In the … backseat of it,” she said.
“Ah,” said Granny.
“People say you make the moon tea?”
“Come sit a spell, child. I got some already steeping. Seems I knew you were coming.”
The girl took a seat in the other rocker and Granny shuffled inside, quiet-footed, as if not to wake the yet-empty house. The pot sat on the woodstove, issuing the faintest curl of steam. Inside, a concoction of pennyroyal and tansy and other herbs, a brew passed down from the wood-witches of old. It could kill if it wasn’t mixed right. She got down one of the mugs standing on the shelfboard. She had eyed the girl close, to see what size to pour.
Granny puffed her pipe as the girl drank the tea. The boy was still sitting behind the wheel of the car, now and again raising a pint bottle to his lips.
“Didn’t he have a rubber?”
The girl held the mug cupped in her hands, the steam rising into her bent face.
“He won’t wear one,” she said. “Says it’s like eating a beefsteak with a sock over his tongue.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes’m. Says he’ll have bastards all over these hills before he hides himself under a jimmyhat.”
Granny could feel the old ire welling up. She thought of her own daughter in those times long ago. Thought of the fatherless grandchild she kept under her own roof, who slept but fitfully beneath his snarl of blankets, as if his war-lost leg kicked and thumped him in his sleep. She set the shank of the pipe between her teeth and pulled hard.
“Maybe you ought not to ride with him, then.”
The girl looked up.
“That’s Cooley Muldoon, of the Linville Muldoons. They run more whiskey down from the hills than God does creekwater. He wants you to go with him, you do.”
“More whiskey than Eustace Uptree’s lot?”
The girl’s mug halted halfway to her mouth. She looked around, realizing perhaps where she was. On whose mountain. Her eyes went round.
“No, ma’am, I don’t reckon that much.”
The boy jammed his elbow out the side of the car, his head following soon after.
“Hey,” he said. “How long’s this gonna take? I ain’t got all damn day to watch y’all jawing it up.”
Granny took the pipe from her mouth.
“It’s gonna take the rest of your life, you don’t show a old woman some respect.”
The boy Cooley got out of the car and slammed the door. He was skinny but hard-made, his flannel shirt rolled up over white longjohn sleeves, his suspender loops hanging down like a pair of failed wings. A long stag-handled knife hung from a leather sheath on his belt.
“Listen,” he said, “I didn’t give twenty dollars to hear the mouthing off of some old whore.”
He was pointing at her from the yard, just beyond spitting distance, but she could almost feel the long reach of his finger probing her heart. She looked above him, at the bottles in the tree. The wind moved them slightly on their limbs, a hundred tiny mouths whispering their discontent.
“Careful,” she said. “You might ought to recollect where you are.”
“I know right where I’m got-damn at.”
He started across the yard, his arm outstretched to grab the girl from the porch, but he froze at the stoop, snapped as if at the end of a chain. It was a rumble that stopped him, issued as from the mountain itself. A quaking of the ground. Only one motor in the county made a sound like that.
The coupe rounded the lower bend of the drive, a ’40 Ford in black, built like a cannonball. It came clawing its way over the ruts, the big ambulance motor pounding the earth as it climbed. It squeaked to a halt in the yard, stuttering at idle, unaccustomed to so little throttle. The driver killed the engine, the door groaned open. Out stepped Granny May’s grandson in his old bomber jacket, his brow hidden beneath a black bowler that had been his grandfather’s. He was short but squarely built, his jaw wide and underbit like a bulldog’s. The kind of jaw that once it got hold of something, it didn’t let up.
“Rory Docherty,” said Cooley. “Heard you was back from over there. Part of you, leastways.”
Rory hobbled to the front of his car, favoring his wooden foot. He didn’t say anything. Cooley spat in the grass.
“Didn’t figure you’d be driving much no more.”
Rory pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from his chest pocket and lit one between his cupped palms. The 5th Marines Zippo snapped closed in his hand.
“Hasn’t been a problem,” he said, “seeing as it’s my clutch foot.”
Cooley licked his lips, staring at Rory’s left boot.
“That driver, Red Byron, now he’s a cripple. Ain’t stopped him from racing, I reckon. Course, he still has a leg.”
Rory blew smoke from his nostrils, a curling blue mustache.
“There some kind of a problem here?”
“We just come for a sip of your granny’s tea,” said Cooley. “Ella here, she had her a seeding last night.”
“Did she,” said Rory.
Cooley tugged upward on the front of his britches, grinning.
“Yes, sir. Just needed us a herbal remedy.”
The girl gulped down the rest of the tea and stood.
“I’m finished,” she said. “We ought to be going. Daddy’ll be up soon. I can’t have him knowing I ain’t been home.”
“No,” said Cooley, leering at Rory. “We can’t have him knowing that.”
She came down off the porch and walked to the car, Cooley standing a long moment just where he was. Finally he started back toward the car, bouncing almost on his toes, the fool’s grin still twisting his face. He got in the green Hudson and leaned his head out the window.
“Way I hear it, Docherty, they given you a medal just for getting blowed up.”
Rory’s cheeks darkened as he pulled on the cigarette. The ash flared.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Seems awful generous, you ask me.”
“You kilt any slants over there?”
The smoke came blowing again from Rory’s nostrils, as if a fire were burning in his gut.
“I believe it’s time you got the fuck off my property, boy. Double-quick.”
Cooley put the car in reverse, looking at Rory.
“You ought to watch how you talk to me,” he said. “Eustace is a long way up that mountain.”
Rory limped closer to the car. He rested one hand on the roof, leaning in, the cigarette burning between his fingers.
“Careful,” he said, lowering his voice. “They say he’s got ears in the trees.”
Rory nodded his head at the spirit tree. Cooley’s eyes went climbing the branches, like Rory knew they would, and Rory flicked his cigarette into the boy’s lap. Cooley yelped, swatting at the shower of sparks, a mob of the red-hot flies assaulting his crotch. The girl sitting shotgun clapped a hand over her mouth, trying not to laugh. Cooley knocked the red cherry of ash to the floorboard and stamped it out. When he looked up, his face was skewed, flushed.
“God damn you, Docherty. You’ll be sorry for this.”
“There’s a lot I’m sorry for,” said Rory. “Not this.”
He turned and started up toward the house. The Hudson reversed out of the yard, jerking into gear, slinging dirt as it slammed and fishtailed down the drive.
Granny watched her boy come laboring up the steps.
“You don’t blow smoke into a snake’s den, son.”
“Wasn’t his den, it was ours.” He started inside.
“Rory.” He stopped. “You forgetting something?”
He bent, dutifully, and kissed her on the cheek.
“Catheads on the stove,” she said. “Gravy in the pot.”
She heard him cross the floor, the cabin trembling under his gait. She heard the springs protest as he crashed onto his bed, his breakfast going cold.
Copyright © 2018 Taylor Brown.
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Taylor Brown grew up on the Georgia coast. He has lived in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, and the mountains of western North Carolina. His fiction has appeared in more than twenty publications, he is the recipient of the Montana Prize in Fiction, and was a finalist in both the Machigonne Fiction Contest and the Doris Betts Fiction Prize. He is the author of Fallen Land (2016) and The River of Kings (2017); Gods of Howl Mountain is his third novel. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.