Just about two weeks ago, I had an unexpected visitor. He was bald on top of his head, but had fuzzy greyish-white hair on the sides. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and was neatly clean shaven. A maroon bow tie matched his suspenders over the white shirt, and his cardigan sweater was grey, with a maroon and white zigag patter down the front on either side. His pants were black, and he wore them over cowboy boots. He was a pretty snappy dresser for an old guy -- kind of a weird combination of conservative and outlandish. When he saw me, he smiled and came forward, holding out his hand. In a voice with just a bit of a southern twang to it, he said, "And how's my favorite young niece doin' here?"
"Uncle Edgar," I cried. "Good to see you!"
"I was just passin' by on Interstate Five on the way to Fresno, and I thought I'd drop in and have a hello. Am I interrupting you from your writing?"
"No, this is a good thing," I said, rubbing my eyes. "I've been staring at the computer screen since four-thirty AM trying to come up with a story about a troll."
"Trolls can be fearsome creatures, oh, you better believe it," said Uncle Edgar, accompanying me to the kitchen.
"You've seen a lot of trolls, have you?" I asked. "Let me get you a cup of tea."
"Well, my younger brother and me saw what we thought was a troll back when we lived in the woods in West Virginia. There weren't many roads then, and most of the getting to and from folks' places involved walking on dirt paths. Crossing streams was a different prospect, though, and generally the men in families that used the paths would pitch in and build some footbridges, nothing fancy, just wide enough for a wheelbarrow or a mamma and her young 'un walking hand in hand." Edgar accepted the cup of tea I'd heated up in the microwave.
"What was your younger brother's name?" I asked him, sipping at my own cup of tea, ready to hear a story I hadn't heard before.
"That little cuss got all the luck. My older brother was named 'Ham' because Dad said when he was born that he'd rather have had one of those instead, my sister got saddled with 'Florence' after my mother's mother, I got named after my uncle, and the little guy got named 'Hastings.'
"Hastings?" I was at a loss. "That's an unusual name."
"Ma said birthing him was like having a battle going on in her belly, him being a breech birth. She said all she could think of was 'The Battle of Hastings' that she'd read about in a history book when she had schooling. So she named him Hastings." Edgar nodded, as if checking his own story.
"Breech birth? It's a wonder she didn't die!" I knew Hastings wouldn't have been born in a hospital. Edgar pointed at me with his cup. "That's what she said, and she kept a sharp meat knife in a little holster in her pocket from then on; she told my dad that if he so much as sneezed in the same room as her she'd cut his jewels off. And she always did sleep in a different room from then on. Sometimes in the summer we'd get up to find her rolled in a quilt out on the porch, but it wasn't unusual to find her sleeping in the morning under the kitchen table, or behind the couch. She was right clever about her sleeping hideout, better'n a fox is, 'cause she never went to ground in the same place two nights running." As Edgar finished that little snippet, he was looking me square in the eyes. I realized that Edgar had perfected a knack for not blinking, making his eyes wide and guileless, while he told a story. Blinking a lot indicates a liar, they say, and Edgar had obviously practiced the trick of appearing truthful.
Or he really did have such a peculiar life.
"I have two questions for you, Uncle Edgar. No, three. The first two are 'Have you had breakfast?' and 'Would you like some breakfast?'"
"'No, ma'am', and 'Yes, ma'am' are the answers to those two questions. What's the third?" He put his elbows on my island bar that divides the family room from the kitchen and crossed his arms.
"What does seeing a troll with your brother Hastings have to do with foot bridges?"
"The woods was filled with strange characters in those days," said my Uncle Edgar. "And me and Hastings was only a couple of them, just wild kids, we didn't have much book learning but what Ma had time for, which wasn't much at all. And we didn't even take to that book learning, so we ran off into the woods as much as we could. We figured that if we were gone all day, we wouldn't get but one beating at nighttime when we came home for bed, and that probably wouldn't be much, considering we was skinny and Ma would be more interested in feeding than whipping us.
"Over about two hours from home on the main path through the woods (it ran from Dogtown in the east all the way to Irmington in the northwest) there was this high wood foot bridge across Deer Creek. Me and Hastings set out right after breakfast one day in summer to see how far we could get before we'd have to turn back. We ran most of the way there, carrying our Uncle Ed's pocketwatch, which we'd stole from his pants before he woke up. (We always woke up early, but Ed had been sampling from the still to check the quality of the product, so he had to have extra sleep.)
"So we got to Deer Creek, and there was some boards in the bridge missing," Edgar continued, licking his lips and looking at the bacon popping in the skillet. "and what's more, the handrail was gone, lying in the bottom of the creek with seaweed growing off it."
"Seaweed?" I asked, turning bacon, even though I remember calling the green stuff that grows from rocks in freshwater creeks 'seaweed,' too.
"Well, that was what we called it," Edgar said, nonplussed. "We'd pull a hunk out and wash our hands with it before we went home if we got muddy."
"So the handrail was gone, and some of the boards," I prompted.
"Me and Hastings wanted to see if we could make it all the way to the Morton place, where we'd been taken to a really great Christmas party the winter before. We'd been ridden on the mules in side baskets, pannies, they called them --- "
"Panniers," I corrected him, fishing the bacon slices out of the pan and onto a paper towel covered dish.
" -- panniers," amended Edgar, "all the way, though Flo and Ham each rode in front of Ma and Dad on the blankets."
"You mean on the saddles."
"No, hell, we couldn't afford saddles. Most of the time those two mules just pulled a sled or a plow. There was a thick blanket for each with a rope loop on either side for ... panniers, and a kind of buckle on one side to keep the blanket in place."
"And the troll came in how?" I asked, cracking eggs into the skillet.
"We were on our way to the Morton place, and had to cross the bridge," said Edgar, with a bit of confusion. "I thought I said that. Anyway, the minute we set foot on the bridge, this thing underneath it says "Gahhhhhunnghhh!!!" and me and Hastings just flung ourselves off the step up to the bridge like we was blown off by dynamite.
"There under the bridge was this creature like you never even imagine in the worst of your stories," Edgar said. "It had scraggly matted hair like the tangle above an Old English Sheepdog's hot spot."
"Ewww," I said, keeping my eye on the eggs.
"One eye was already gone, and the other was bleary and red. What clothes the thing had were in shreds, and had gone the kind of green you associate with mold on cheese in the icebox or on laundry that's beyond mildew, where the funguses have already started to digest the cloth they're stuck on."
Okay, I thought, I understand why not everyone wants to hear what Uncle Edgar has to say. I put some bread in the toaster.
"Up from under the bridge on the far side this thing clambered, jabbering at us with words that sounded like 'Gonna eatchoo' so we bolted for the highground (everyone knows that boogeymen and monsters can't go uphill all that fast) and didn't stop until we reached the top of that ridge, when Hastings said, 'This thing gonna backtrack us, and catch us on the way back.'"
I turned the eggs, hoping Uncle Edgar liked them over-medium. "Hastings had some good sense."
Edgar nodded, "That time he did. Lucky I knew how we could just go on aways up the ridge and then drop down and cross the water (what did we care about getting wet at that point?) and keep moving south to hit the trail to the Morton's past the footbridge. Which we did."
I put the bacon and eggs on plates, the toast on another plate, and loaded it onto the kitchen table. Napkins, silverware ... "Uncle Edgar, would you like some tomato juice?"
"Never touch the stuff. Dad used to say tomatoes were pizen."
"Did you get to the Mortons'?"
"Hastings and I piled into the Morton cabin without even knocking, we was so scared and looking over our shoulders to make sure that creature hadn't followed us. Ikey Morton's wife took one look at us and called her husband in from their barn. While she fed us -- I'll be darned if she didn't fry us up some bacon and eggs just about as pretty as these -- Ikey asked us about the troll under the footbridge.
"Back in that day, folks didn't hem and haw about what to do like they do now. They didn't have policemen and lawyers and preliminary hearings to go through a couple weeks dithering about when their families might be in danger. Ikey got his oldest boy and his brother-in-law, and they armed up. Ikey had this big gray cart horse he rode that was so savage he had to pen the bastard up separate from the rest of the stock. If there was any hint of trouble, he'd ride that animal, and then God help anyone who got close. I remember seeing that horse grab a man by the shoulder down in Winston and shake him like a --"
"Wait! Finish the story of the troll first," I said, and then looked at my plate with some surprise. I'd eaten all my breakfast but one slice of bacon without even thinking.
"Right," said Uncle Edgar. "Ikey and his son swung me and Hastings up behind them on their horses, and they started back the path through the woods, leaving the brother-in-law to guard their house and still. We crossed the stream without seeing anybody, but the Mortons could see that there was what looked like some kind of nest under the end of the bridge, and a black spot that might have been from some fire.
"On about a hundred yards or so from the bridge, that big mean horse of Ikey's started snorting and blowing and growling and fighting the reins, wanting to go after something, but Ikey kept him moving and took us home, where we got a first class hiding for running off so far." Edgar wiped his mouth carefully with the napkin. "Thank you, young lady, for such a delicious breakfast. It certainly has been a pleasure spending this time with you." He winked at me. "And you keep telling those stories."
"Oh, you can't be leaving already, that's not fair! At least you have to tell me how the story ended about the thing under the bridge, please."
"Oh, Ikey and his son, and Dad and Uncle Ed all mounted up and went to find the thing. Ham and my mother kept a couple shotguns beside them and sat on the porch keeping watch. We saw smoke around five o'clock, and Ham said he thought he'd heard a shot, but he couldn't be sure.
"Before nightfall, Dad and Uncle Ed came back, and that was that."
"What do you mean 'and that was that?' That's not an ending! What happened?" I sputtered and stood in his path to the front door.
"Honey, we asked that and were told not to ask again. Some things a family just don't talk about. I heard snippets here and there over the years before we got moved out of the mountain, and I think Ikey and Dad were more or less justified. Seems that nest had some people's wallets in it, and some cooked up bones that didn't come from a deer or a wild pig.
"Hastings used to have nightmares about the thing under the bridge, and wouldn't leave our clearing until Dad told him that he and Ikey made sure it wouldn't ever be there again. And the next Christmas, when we rode over to the Mortons' again, the bridge was gone." He patted my shoulder. "You have a happy Thanksgiving, and tell your family I said hello to them, too. Bye, now."
"Goodbye, Uncle," I said, turning to see him out. "Be careful on the road."
From The Memoirs of Edgar McCassar, originally published December 6, 2003.