Matt said that he climbed those railroad tracks at midnight, like we dared him to. Like we double dogged him to. When he was telling us this experience, I was expectin’ magic. Dwarves. I wanted to hear shadows linger in between leaf blades to sprout legs and walk between the trees. I’ve been in the woods at night, but not as far as the river or the quarry. Not as far as the railroad, the leviathan spine that lurches from the earth like a yawn.
Matt came back the next morning saying that he never saw such magic. Not the kinda magic you wanna see. Instead, he said he saw fire. Not dragon breath. Man’s fire. Said was hard to count ‘em all, he buckled down and laid low on top the Dragon’s Back soon as he caught glimpse. Who started the fires, what kinda people do that out in the woods? Geno, another kid from the black Baptist projects said that fires happen all the time in the woods. Matt said that these fires were different. They’s scattered. Multiple. Scabbed embers spottin’ and sizzlin’ long the snakin’ Cumberland. The flames. They’d lick through twisting tree boughs in the night like glow worms through a ribcage. As if they could fit their mouths around carbon and chew. Raw tongue their way to the cul de sac and spread like an itch. We all believed Matt, hell, he was my best friend. We shared the same Camel Back everywhere we went with summa Auntie Davis swig mix Kool-Aid. We sipped some from that pack when he told the story. I let him have some more since his brow done beaded in the middle of it.
We saw them, the Klan, in robes on one of the Rudolph street’s corners. Further from the Cumberland, they never got close to foot traffic, even if they did, the cops woulda wrestled them back to dirt corners, back to the sticks and away from the tourists. Tourists don’t wanna see that side of Knoxville, that side of Memphis. They’d sit in the sticks and glow from their fires, drawing moths and beetles to the flame. They never wore their robes in public. Ma never talked about them, Pa neither. The other white kids in shacks along Al Orter never had to hear none about the KKK unless another kid catches whiff of them from another kid and asks his folks. They talked about them once, at least Ma did. She gave us a rundown of Martin Luther King, they existed then, in history, in past and passing. Not now though, they was as dead as the ghosts they dressed as.
But Matt told me last mornin’ that he saw those lights, the fires in the woods. Matt was half black, and I wondered if they’d hate half of him, strip him in two to flap in the wind. He said they’d never see the white side, no white men ever do. I told him that it was nothing, swamp gasses where thain’t none. He wanted to know what Ma and Pa thought of him. I told him they loved him. He wanted to know what Mr. Earl thought of him, what Mr. Mike thought of him, Ms. Leah from across the street. I told him they all liked him.
I hung out with Matt, I hung out with Geno, I even hung out with Chucky ‘till he had to move cuz his pa stabbed his ma. My family babysat the Virgil’s family. I was homeschooled, one of the only white kids amongst the other black baptist kids. We weren’t allowed to trick’r treat around our neighborhood, our parents were never too keen on any of us being out at late night. Not down Lafayette at least, not nowhere near Peacher’s Mill, especially not by that grave dragged out alongside the road. We all stayed together on those nights, cooped up in the church courtyard across the street from the projects. Matt, Geno, and X would shoot hoops on the corner of the street facing west side of the projects. West side is what leads to the train tracks, the rock quarry, the Cumberland River, and the trailer parks. Balls would hollowly bounce, echoing through the air, adding their own percussion to the Run D.M.C CD on blast.
Tryin’ to juke around X, he saw me roll to the right and threw his shoulder my direction. I rolled face first into it, like kissing a boulder. X was already craning me back on my feet, not before he scored a shot though.
“Damn, son.” X waved a finger in front of his nose while using the other to dust my shoulder. Before I saw what he was referencing, several red droplets fell to the ground and drowned the dust below. I yanked my wifebeater to my nose and clogged the blood best I could. I sat back on the church steps and watched Matt and X square off. Geno was already sitting there, being a shorter size and hating being battered by X. Matt was hangin’ backwards on the basketball hoop kickin’ his feet wildly after dunking on X.
“You know,” Geno said, “he says they’s anyone, ‘em people that started the fires. That they-”
“They’s not anyone, they’s the Klan an’ no one’s in the Klan no more.” I wished I was with Matt when he saw it, those fires. Geno was the one that double dogged him up the damn hill. I wish I coulda crawled up with him, blow out those fires, show them the smoke and mirrors behind them.
“Says he can’t trust no one, Chad. Coulda been any white boy. You think he migh think you’re part of it?” Geno didn’t gruff himself up when he asked. It was like asking Ma n’ Pa where babies came from. That question had to come sometime.
The ball bounced off the rim and dribbled itself across the street ‘till it hit a brick apartment.
“Fuck off Geno,” I hustled myself off of the porch and pounded pavement across the street.
I wanted to blame Geno for it all, say it was all his fault. If he never dared Matt to march up that hill, maybe we could all keep being friends the way we were, and wouldn’t have to thing too hard about it. I didn’t what it was, it breathed like a dinosaur in my head, rumbling out through my ears, making me pause and think Matt, X, Geno. We all talked the same, we all sounded the same. Sometime’s older folks would remind me to speak right. To talk properly. Don’t say “ain’t” so much. They never asked my other friends to change how they talked. Just me. As if they didn’t like me sounding like them. As if the words were in the air, like bad breath. Guess that’s all I wanted, to clear the air.
Walkin’ back from the curb, Matt, Geno, and X all stared over my shoulder. They looked like they saw a corpse that they grew up with, somethin’ that disgusted them, but nothin’ that was none the familiar.
I turned around and saw two white linen ghosts with eyes poked through the holes carrying Dollar Store jack-o-lantern Halloween baskets. They wore worn out Reeboks on their feet. The both of them were taller than us. They walked with a swung gait as if they snaked back ‘n forth to dodge invisible cobwebs. They both turned their heads to look at us as they walked by. At least, turned to look at Matt, Geno, n’ X. I didn’t feel looked at. I wondered if they looked upward, saw the church billboard with two black palms claspin’ a dove. Holding him like a clay bowl holding milk. Hell, I wondered why they looked at all. Why they walked down this part of Peacher’s Mill at all. Most white people avoided the place, too much”jungle music in the damn streets.”
The two ghosts had stopped in front of the Church, and I could hear one of them snickering. The cloth around where his mouth fluttered like a wasp wing. They never said nothing just chuckled in front of the church. Hackin’ lungs and throat like an engine usin’ the last of its oil to choke itself out.
Geno ripped the ball out my hand and teleported it across the street, into the gut of the ghost on the right. His chuckle turnt to wheezing as he doubled over coughing. What was coming next was obvious. It was two options, they’d charge across the street, kick our teeth in and punch our cartilage through the back of our skulls, or they’d tail it into a pickup truck, and we wouldn’t catch wind of them for weeks, maybe months, an’ when they do come back roun’, it wouldn’t look pretty for the church. They’d break those hands that held the dove. Blow the dust that they leave them as to scatter in the winds.
They turned and walked with the three of us slingin’ a torrent of “cousin fuckers” their way. They ran westward, lifting up their sheets and cackling the whole way. It was almost easier to square off with ‘em. At least we coulda pulled their masks off before they stomped us. Told our ‘rents through broken bones and bloodied lips what they looked like.
Goddamn it. What did they look like? I know they’re white, they gotta be white. What other color the klan gonna be? But what kinda white? I learnt the word “cousin fucker” from Matt. It’s what you call a white person when they call you “nigger.” Cousin fuckers gotta have one eye, a slanted jaw, red wiry hair that bleeds from the scalp. Sun spots nestled like scabs puckerin’ ‘cross their skin. They couldn’t look like me.
When I laid down to sleep that night, I wondered if it even happened. But someone’s laugh was stuck in my head. I dreamt they ran westward, and kept runnin’ westward. Over the Stone Door, two flowing silhouettes against a moon-dipped horizon, plunging off the cliffs of the smokey mountains and howling into the wind as linen flapped like a dying fish. They hit the ground, and the earth rippled, absorbed them. Swallowed them with a gulpin’ silence. In this dream, you can walk over them. Get dared and double dogged to dance on their graves, and pluck the irises growing over them. Put the flowers to your ear. They’ll cackle like banshees.
I still didn’t know if we even did the right thing. They ran, we stood. ‘S all I knew.
The day after, me and Matt were walking along an abandoned railroad, using our nails to claw iron railway stakes from the earth and cram them in our pockets. We hauled up our loose pants with one hand, and wiped sweat with another. Our arms were covered in red clay up to our elbows. We were silent most of the day, digging into our own holes and only hearing the grinding slide-click of nails parting earth and slammin’ against a nail head. Most of the time, me ‘n Matt would talk comics, talk movies, talk damn near anythin’ but what’s in front of us. Now, there was no talkin’. We just dug. I jerked the rusted nails out of my pocket, tearing my belt loop off on a hook.
“So what happen’ yes’erday?” I crouched on a railway sleeper, watching the rollie pollies crawl into the cracked chasms that I shaded.
“They’s fuckin’ with us ‘swhat happened.” He didn’t look up at me or stop digging. I wanted to tell him about my dream. Tell him that they’re in the earth. The ghosts. They whistle and slice through branches with the wind.
“You think they’s KKK?” It just felt better to say it, to talk about ‘em for once. I was the only one I was comforting.
“Any of ‘em coul’ be ‘em, you know? I heard some of ‘em come from Simpson Park.”
“But they’s just kids messin’ ‘roun’, right? They ain’t part of no klan. Hell, we prolly don’t even have a klan in these pa-”
Matt struck the nail held in his hand into the clay, damn near sinkin’ his fist in with it. Only the nail head stuck out from the top, the rest buried beneath the surface. I thought about how deep does this thing cut with man? How long do those fires singe?
We always learned to love the woods. It was me and my three brothers that dragged them all into the forests, but once it became a habit, our friends would be barging into our place. Asking our mom if we could go crawdaddin’ or play manhunt far into the night. Everything we did was outside. Hell, we had huts in the woods that we took naps in, daring each other to spend the night in them. None of us ever did it.
“This is where I saw them, Chad.” He shot up and pointed at the river bend, where the Cumberland flows slow ‘n green as moss, hit’s the bank, and bleeds red from a clay kiss.
When the wind blew through the leaves, they whipped sharply, a horse tail swatting flies that buzz too close to it. I wished it woulda blown loud enough for the two of us to scream silence at each other, loud enough to drown in. Blow hard enough to shake out the things that lurk between ‘em leaves.
“You, you saw what, Matt?” I tried scrapin’ the clay off of my hands and only smeared it into my pores. I just crammed my fists into my pockets, forgot they’s nails in them, and scraped on their rust the whole way down.
“The fires, man, the gotdamn fires!”
I stood up and looked around. The setting sun had bled out over the landscape, bleaching everything pink and scarlet. The entire forest looked like a fire. I tried to imagine smoke trailing up in the night, tried to see the flickering orange flames from between dogwood limbs. The Cumberland River snaked around the hills and zigzagged eastward. It separated our neighborhood from a suburb with perfect square yards, and fungi-free grass. Right at the clay kiss. The drop of blood.
These tracks were old, Pap says they brought the country together, people would ride around on them to see family, see different parts of the country, maybe even see a bit of themselves wherever they went. Take the last train to Clarksville, and I’ll meet you at the station. The train tracks rose above and overlooked the Cumberland, and the growing suburb on the other side. What use to be a route to connect everything together started turning into a wall, a barrier that you couldn’t help but slam into, full force. Meld face with brick, leave nothing left to see into. Somewhere, back in my head, far enough so it’d never reach my lips, I wanted the river to rise up, just drown it all.
“But...what sides you see ‘em on?”
Matt cocked his head at me, left eye squinting.
“What side, Matt? What side of the river were they on?”
He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“Couldn’t tell, it was dark, and they’s burnin’ in the woods, ways from the houses. Coulda been our side or theirs.”
These were mountains I ran half naked through. I’d lie in the arms of an oak in the rain, watch the dribble of a stream feed through it’s wrinkles n’ pores, while the wrinkle of the valley drank with each tree. I looked over all of this that sunset when Matt said that, and I felt like they lied to me. It wasn’t my skin, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my culture. Those boogie men in robes bubbled up from the curdling throat of the earth. Her clenched teeth and puckered lips yawned in an om and belched out the banshees in white, in red, in green. All bodily colors.
It was easier to believe that than them being human. I wanted to strut up to the summabitches on Rudolph Street, sink my hands in their robes roun’ their necks and feel for fur. Crunch some scales. Stab two fingers in the eye socket and rip off the mask, revealin’ a big lizard, an alien, a wolf. Anythin’ but a human. But a white human. If I ever did rip off that mask, who’s face woulda been? Mr. Earl’s? He cut hair. The hair on my head. He’d take us potato gun shootin’ all the time while Pa was shootin’ real gun in ‘Ganistan. It coulda been his face.
A few days passed in the summer. We spent time slamming action figures into each other, plucking crawdads from the creek, and bustin’ dried kudzu into homely shapes. Finding home and shelters in the red dust and bone-hued dead plants. I thought it would pass. Matt stopped talking about them, Geno did also.
Their white sheets slipped through my pores. Drank from my veins. When I slept on my top bunk at night, nose to nose with the white popcorn ceiling, the dots would shift, like dancing stars. Start speckling and puckering into a triangle while two semi-circles equally apart blink themselves onto its face. I’d sleep nose to nose with it. I’d catch myself at the dead of night reachin’ my hand up, tryin’ to touch it. To feel it, see if it could feel me back.
I told Ma that we were going crawdad picking at the creek. Early morning, try to nab them before they came out the rocks. Walking uphill north of the cul de sac, the sun pink peaked from the ogre headed clouds. Matt’s mother answered the door, kissed me on the forehead, and fetched Matt to the front door. His wavy curls were flattened on the side he slept on, and he was wipin’ a tear booger from his eye when he came to the front door.
“We’re goin’ crawdaddin’, Matt.”
“It’s seven thirty, man.”
I turned around and talked back to him from over my shoulder.
“It’s only gonna get later.”
He hugged his mom and she hollered for us to be back before sundown.
Walkin’ down Peacher’s Mill, me and Matt didn’t hold much of a conversation. It seemed like all talkin’ stopped. Like Marvel and DC Comics stopped being made for this. It felt like all TV was in another place. The only thing we had to look at n’ talk ‘bout was this land, and the people springin’ up from it.
We hit the corner of Peacher’s Mill and Al Orter. Matt marched a few paces down the street before he turned and saw me inchin’ towards the woods. The fence line through Earl’s horse farm would bring us to the mountain pass n’ the railraod tracks, and dip down into the river bend that carved this place in two. I was standin’ by the wood’s hollow staring back at Matt.
The next corner over on Matt’s left, heading north going parallel with the tracks was Simpson Park. We still figured them banshees come from there.
Matt hopped into the trees with me without a word passing between us.
I use to be able to walk this pass with Matt and imagine Hyrule, we’d pluck up thick oak bark tumbling off a tree’s face and finger paint the triforce on it. We use to be able to nestle down in a thatched loft on a dogwood and overlook the mornin’ mist, see if there’s leviathans in these valleys. Somethin’ that the adults kept missin’ but we could see. None of that happened. I saw sunlight, I saw leaves. I saw the dirt, the leaves drownin’ in it, and the beatles scurrying underneath. I wondered, in that moment, if I lost something or gained something.
To climb up Dragon’s Backbone, you have to stab the earth with you hands, hold tight to veiny roots and pull tight for leverage. Over the course of a few years, me n’ Matt had plenty of roots to hold too. The hill was a red meaty mound with wooden worms weaving through it.
On top of the tracks, the morning sun could be seen crawling over the horizon. Thick n’ slow light that didn’t beam so much as it bleed.
I sat down on the tracks, tossing a nail into the dirt and plucking it out. Thunk, rip, thunk rip. Filled the void with some noise as I tried to figure out how to word it.
“You okay?” Matt had a tendency of statin’ things with a question. He knew I wasn’t okay.
“I wantcha to take me there, Matt. Take me to ‘em.”
Matt sat down next to me n’ stared out over the river. The slowness of it was painful.
“That was at the beginnin’ of the summer, man. How’m I ‘spose to know where they at?”
“You said you saw ‘em down near the river, right?”
“Yeh but hell if I know which side.”
“We gotta fifty fifty shot either way.” I stood up when I spoke and started sidestepping down the hill. I wanted to sound like I didn’t care what side it was on, like I didn’t hope the river woulda been a buffer, corralled and housing the monsters on another side.
Matt clomped down clawin’ at the earth with each step. He leaned parallel with the slope and skidded with the soles of his shoes, hands diggin’ in the dirt to stop himself on a root. He joined me at the bottom and pointed at the river.
“You gotta follow it a bit.”
The river wrapped eastward, snaking through the sticks that was the back end of Simpson Park. There were truck tires every step you took. A worn down orange rusted truck leaned drunkinly against a tree, that leaned painfully against another. Matt said not to run your fingers cross the ground, or to jump on the the mattresses. Needles coulda been anywhere.
I was staring up in the trees. I don’t know why, it just seemed if you were gonna find any of them, that’s where they’d be. Like sharp-eyed doves, like lean owls, huddled above your head with hunched shoulders. Their hole-punched eyes would be a black voiding stare, on a linen sheet background. I wondered if they waited in the woods. Lit fires and waited to see what kids would come to check it out. I had a few friends from Simpson Park. They weren’t bad people. Austin would make jokes around me that he wouldn’t make around Matt. But he wasn’t one of those banshees.
I heard Matt make a mockingbird call below the dip of the river, right on the bend. I took one last glance through the trees, and only saw the dark green underbellies waving in the thick morning sunlight.
I scaled down the crag, landing alongside Matt. We use bird calls when we’re on someone’s farm or hunting property n’ we don’t want anyone to know we’re there. It didn’t occur to me that this woulda been time for it.
Matt was kneeling by a fireplace. Crushed Miller Lite cans and cigarette butts were bloomin’ from the ground. There was a charred m’ ashen log in the fireplace. Heavy boots plodded a faded waltz on this bank. Bustlin’ over to the river, and back to the fire. It was only one person's footprints. Least, that I could tell.
Matt’s hand gripped the stick tight, real tight, as he poked and stabbed the log that was left in the pit. He squinted his eyes.
“So...it was just one person. Right? Some guy gettin’ his drink on?” I asked.
Matt scratched at the sand with his stick, turning over the morning dew wet top and flickin’ out the grainy dry bits underneath.
“He was here a few nights ago. His footsteps are faded. Might not even be the same guy from the beginning of summer. Can’t be him. Some guy downin’ beer wouldn’t have lit a buncha fires ‘round a river.”
“Why couldn’t it be one guy?” I kicked the log over rolling its ashen white belly upward, “I mean, shit Matt, far as we know, it’s the same kids months ago that was trying to spook us.”
Matt started staring into the river instead of answerin’ me. It was a slower, more flat, river. A few ripples here n’ there would jumble the silhouetted reflection. Me and Matt were roughly the same height, wore the same sized shabby shirts n’ jeans. If it wasn’t for Matt’s curly hair, our silhouettes coulda fit in the same puzzle pieces. Staring into that river, it made me wonder what it’d be like to float along it. To flatten myself into a flat shadow on the surface, and glide along in a world of similarities. I wanted to stay there the rest of the morning, looking at a blank shadow of the two of us. It was easier to handle than the real us. Flesh n’ blood complicated things.
“Matt, I heard Geno n’ ‘em talk, sayin’ you thought I coulda been one of ‘em.” I didn’t look at him. It was easier to say it to his shadow in the river. I don’t even know if I was looking for an answer. The river was a void, and casting words into it was enough.
“Yeah...Yeah man, I prolly said somethin’ like that.”
“So...you think I’m one of, one of ‘em?”
Nothing could be seen in the river’s murk. It coulda been a floatin’ film. An inch thick cloud with nothin’ you could dig into.
“Nah, Chad. Not like that. I mean, you could, you know? That’s enough to get you thinkin’.”
I sat on the beach when he said that. Matt plopped down behind me. We listened to the mockingbirds chirp to the rustlin’ dogwood limbs. I stared at my own hands, I knew that no matter how deep I dove in that river, floatin’ along it’s edges, driftin’ as a shadow, I’d either live in a dream, or emerge as white as I was hoppin’ in.
“It’s enough to make me think, too.” I told Matt.
Matt scooted up alongside me, the sole of his shoe kicking up ‘longside my shin.
“I think they look like me. Those cousin fuckers. The Klan.”
“I think they might look like you, too,” Matt said.
We sat and watched the river float by. Every now and then, a fish tail would flick through the vale. Break through the void. Alongside the bird chirps and whisperin’ leaves, the flick of a fish tail was a loud disturbance. Like breaking glass in a drum line.
Matt threw an arm around me. I didn’t know if I was supposed to do the same to him. It just felt easier to do nothing. As if I woulda been saying I did somethin’ wrong if I took his arm. As if I didn’t deserve him as a best friend.
“I’m sorry I doubted you, man.”
Matt didn’t say anythin’ back, but I knew he heard me.
That night. I stared that hood in the face. I wondered if everyone white saw one before goin’ to bed? If it dangled from ceilings and trees over all of our beds? If we wished it goodnight. I wondered why it was easier to say all of these things to a river? To a void? I think we speak to darkness, hoping it’ll echo a name back at us. I stared up, directly into the two semi circle eyes. Ever since Matt mentioned them fires, I couldn’t unsee it. I wondered if when I stared at that mask, if I was staring at those eyes from the outside looking in, or the inside looking out.