My new material reflects my interest in history as a wellspring for fiction. The mind and heart move back and forth between past and present, and I feel freer to make that happen in my stories that shift between characters' memories and current experiences. I like to write about people caught up in forces larger than they are, such as war, cultural change, and the changes wrought by time itself. I like to research obscure local events and use them as points of entry into stories. Most of all, I like to imagine how people felt and thought, and what inevitable consequences they set in motion due to their actions, passions, and force of will. The NEA fellowship is a challenge as well as an honor. It means that more is expected of me. I hope to be worthy of that expectation.
From the short story "The Bridge"
The boy, Burrell, has the dead-of-night watch. He loves it. Animals come by then, trotting, lolloping, slithering, flying, padding, powered by their invisible hearts, their eyes bright as coins. He had never known that they too use the bridge, not just the wild and tame dogs that cross it during the day, but possums and deer, foxes and bobcats, as if to say, Why not, it's here. He thinks he's dreaming when herd animals appear: goats and sheep, one or two as if ark-bound. They have business to tend to. He could reach out and pet their flanks, their fur, their hide, the tips of their whiskers. He tries, and they swerve out of reach. Porcupine, bear, turkey, squirrel, and pig. Their nighttime travels have a dapper purpose and camaraderie. Snakes move fast at night, and toads jump high as Burrell's shoulder. Tortoises, he swears, move at a near gallop. They have no fear of him, this boy crouched at one end of the bridge, proud of missing his sleep.
But then, he has only one eye. When he recites the list of creatures, he grows insistent, turning his good eye toward Mary Jane Fenton, cocking his head.
"I believe you," says Mary Jane. "I know they are there. I've heard them."
Her house overlooks the mill and the river. She herself would be the best guard of all.
"It's not like people think it is," he says, meaning the animal world, the night world. Burrell unwraps his sketchbook. He has drawn them, the creatures. Among their figures float faces and forms of humans, caught in his lantern light as he hailed and detained them, then let them pass. Mary Jane barely glances at those.
"Here's an owl riding the back of a mule," she says, delighted.
"They came by 'bout three o'clock," says Burrell.
It's early in the morning, and he's sleepy, his shift having ended with sunrise, when Bonnie Hazlitt swings down the road wearing a yellow apron over her dress. He longs to be dashing and witty in her eyes, but believes she dislikes him.
"Go home," Mary Jane tells the boy, "and rest."
"How can you hear 'em? The animals."
"I often sleep with the windows open. Sounds carry, at night, and over water." She blushes, for this is Henry's room, too.
Burrell folds his sketchbook and lopes away.
All over the South, there are bridges, and some with guards. Are they all like this, busy at night with animals in transit? Mary Jane has seen the army, Southern soldiers. When men are coming, Henry often has word. From her window she watches the long assemblage with its music, its shouts, drumbeats, a cavalcade and parade. Men find their way to her door, and her cook feeds them. Commanders stop at the mill, and Henry greets them. The bridge holds them all, men, horses, wagons. For miles after they pass, she can glimpse them on the rising road as the column winds through farms and up into the hills.
"Throw him back like an ugly fish," says Henry, his eyes twinkling, when the guards ask what they should do if they apprehend a Yankee. He expects, before the war ends, that they may all have to fight, at least the old men and the one-eyed boy. That girl, Bonnie Hazlitt, could nurse her baby and fight at the same time, don't put it past her.
Don't ever say goodbye on a bridge. You'll never see the other person again. Henry's grandmother used to say that. Henry is thirty-six years old. From the top floor of his mill, the bridge and the river look as far away as the Grand Canyon.
Reprinted by permission from The Hudson Review, Volume LVI, No. 4 (Winter 2004). Copyright © by Cary Holladay.
Cary Holladay is the author of a novel, Mercury (Random House), and two collections of short stories, The People Down South (U. of Illinois Press), and The Palace of Wasted Footsteps (U. of Missouri Press). A new collection, The Quick Change Artist, is forthcoming in Fall 2006 from Ohio UP / Swallow Press. Her new work appears in New Stories From the South: The Year's Best 2005, as well as in recent issues of Epoch, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, Five Points, New Letters, Shenandoah, and The Southern Review. Upcoming work is in The Georgia Review and The Idaho Review. Her awards include an O. Henry Prize. A native of Virginia, Cary is married to the poet and fiction writer John Bensko. They teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.
Photo by John Bensko