She didn’t know why she took that road. A break from the monotony of the American highway, perhaps, a diversion from the endless black river with its broken white hyphens, an almost-invisible path through the woods breaking off as if the map-maker’s hand had slipped. She was sure no one had seen it but her. The woods formed a close, low canopy, keeping the road in darkness, evidence of its rare use. The road wasn’t on the map and her confused GPS gave up on directions- even it didn’t know where it led.
The gnarled tree branches reached out toward her, laden with Spanish moss, and the dust hung in the sultry air. These woods were old, the dust rarely disturbed. Despite the humidity clinging to her skin, she felt a dryness in the dappled, obscured sunshine. She glimpsed the skeleton of a rusted-out pickup truck between the trees, an old Chevy perhaps, and thought she spotted an odd sign here and there. As the trees began to thin and the road became dirtier, she found a peeled white billboard appear beside her. Its once-red lettering suggested that if she were thirsty, she should try Coca-Cola, in one of those little curvy bottles with the caps you need a built-in bottle opener to remove that they don’t make anymore. Another abandoned car, this time an old Cadillac, from no later than the 60’s or 70’s. Maybe it wasn’t abandoned, just parked and unwashed. The clearing she was in turned out to be a crossroads. She was in what might’ve been a town.
There was a gas station, but no one attended to it. It still had Texaco’s old logo fading from its unlit sign. This intersection was nestled amongst some wooded hills. The traffic light worked, though there was no traffic. She thought she saw an “open” sign in the bar on the opposite corner. She could not imagine where the other road led. All directions seemed to disappear into the woods. She parked her car on the gravel that was scattered in place of a sidewalk and got out of the car.
She could have flown from Toronto to Florida with her vacationing friends, but managed to get time off work a little early so decided to make a road trip of it and meet them there. She was afraid to fly and liked the idea of making stops along the way and back- New York, DC, West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia- to see places she’d never been. No one had wanted to join her, so she went alone.
New York had been fun, but she’d only stayed one night, and barely got to scratch any items off her to-do list. DC, it had turned out, had been too far out of the way, though she intended to reach it on the way back and visit the Lincoln memorial. She’d hit up whatever tourist traps had caught her attention along the highway and eaten at roadside diners and T.G.I.Friday’s, and had been getting bored. She needed to stretch her legs. She wanted to explore, to discover, or uncover, something she didn’t know was there.
So she wandered this forgotten outpost of dusty picket fences and neon bar signs advertising whiskey: Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, Thunderbird, Wild Turkey; beers like Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and others she’d never heard of. There was a broken chapel on the hillside surrounded by overgrown weeds, and a billboard proclaiming that Jesus Saves. A red heart had been spray painted on it. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen it- that heart had followed her, dotting the highway on signs and crosses, always attached to Jesus’ name. It was sweet. Good Christian folks ‘round these parts, even if some were vandals.
She was surprised to find houses- surprised, because unless you looked closely, you’d never tell they were there. Some might have been inhabited. One tire swing in an overgrown yard swung despite the still air, as if someone had just gotten off. There was no one around, but for a moment, the air jangled, as if it carried music. Faded flags were hung from rusted poles, their stars and stripes streaming gallantly no longer. A few seemed to contain the wrong number of stars, and peering into the darkened windows, she even spotted a Confederate banner or two. The houses with shutters and bannisters carved like antique Chantilly lace were interwoven with vines and thorns, while paths leading to front doors were completely hidden beneath tall dry grass. A wooden figure beckoned to her from beside an old-fashioned mailbox. A lawn jockey. She’d never seen one. Nearby there was the closest thing to an informative sign she’d seen, proclaiming either the name of the house, the road, or the town, she knew not which. It merely read, “Hazel”.
The twilight brought a coolness to the prickly heat, and she could hear the cicadas begin to sing. She encountered a large property, probably a former plantation, its cotton field now overgrown with brambles and wildflowers. A naked tree pointed a withered limb to the space behind her. What was that hanging from its branches?
She turned, her skin sticky from the thick dusty air. It was like a swamp in a desert, humid and dry at the same time. There was a sign at the side of the road; “He who walks alone walks through Purgatory,” it read. “He who walks with Christ walks into the Kingdom of Heaven,” she thought the rest would read if most of the paint hadn’t peeled off. The arrow pointed toward the chapel, or at least tried to, but it seemed that since it had been erected, one or both had moved. Perhaps the earth had shifted. She could almost feel it beneath her feet, the earthworms writhing, excited for something coming. She had completely lost track of time. Time, space, distance- she didn’t know where she was, or when, nothing in this town seemed to date past the 1950’s, and older still, relics of a past she never knew, an antebellum age remembered only by the ghosts who pumped the gas and poured the drinks. For the second time that day, she noticed a path despite its invisibility- a footpath, leading into a grassy area of low trees and dried-out daisies. The grasses hissed and scratched at her legs, but still, she walked.
As night fell, she could no longer see anything human. It was dead silent, and she was alone.
Then she encountered a wooden structure. Stables, perhaps, but not quite. They were as old as anything in the town, and in fact older, but not worn, almost clean, as if they had a caretaker, except for some marks here and there, stains from whatever its purpose once was. The ground here was patchy dirt. She considered outdoor changing rooms, although there was no nearby swimming hole, or possibly outhouse stalls for the big Southern houses she couldn’t see from where she was. The world outside had vanished. The willow trees whispered, and the Spanish moss danced tauntingly in the moonlight. Sometimes, she thought she saw something in their creaking branches, a long lost kite, a wind chime, strange fruit. There was a smell, a faint smell, like sulphur, or rot, underneath the scent of magnolia. A burning, too, mixed with the leaves, someone’s faraway wood stove. A coldness emanated from the soil, an oppressiveness from the wood. A spider was spinning its web among the chains hanging from the walls, and she doubted that she knew what a black widow looked like. More chains in the corners, a rare pot or piece of debris, although the place was mostly clean. Aside from the hooks in the ceiling, the brown and black stains, the dead, agonized air.
The breeze picked up, pinpricked her skin, chilled her, made her feel out of place and utterly alone. She was lost. As lost as a soul in limbo, and as damned as ground built on ancient bones and tainted with dark blood. She imagined she heard rattlesnakes, drums, distant gunshots and tribal incantations, louder, louder still to drown out the silent screams echoing through time in her mind. She averted her eyes from the spirits of this place and bent down her head, lowering her gaze to the ground on which she stood. She saw something in the dirt. It was a severed chicken’s foot.
She turned back and hurried to her car, hoping she’d find it, praying it would take her away from this place, not looking back. She started the engine and drove without breathing until she saw highway lights, not bothering to mark the place on the map for future reference, knowing that, even if she tried, even if she came back, she’d never find it.