Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Untitled 4

I can't bear the title any more, so until a better one comes to me, the story will stay unnamed.


We stood at the entrance to the corn maze, looking down to the point where the path dead-ended at the first split. As Vin had predicted, we had the place to ourselves. He tucked the maps inside his jacket.

“The way you solve a maze,” he said, “is that at every point you follow the right hand wall. You may have to traverse the entire field, but at least you’re sure of getting out.”

“But that could take forever,” I objected. “I think we should flip a coin, or play rock paper scissors, or just charge around. Wouldn’t you be more likely to get lucky that way?”

“You’re more likely to get lost.”

We took the right turn. The papery sigh of the field had a mesmeric strain to my town-bred ears.

“This is gonna be so Zen,” I said, twirling to brush the stalks on each side.

“Keep your right on your right,” Vin warned.

“How can I lose my right? It’s always in the same place.”

“Not if if you spin so that you’re facing the other direction.”

“Oh.” I tramped beside him as he brushed the wall of stalks. “You’re right.”

“I’m correct in my direction, and I’m on the right, yes.”


He chuckled, and I swear the corn stalks laughed a bit too.

“So,” I said, “why is secrecy of the essence? Are you expecting big awkward family revelations? Is your history of crime finally catching up?”

“I don’t expect any closure, to be honest,” he said. “I just can’t stand everyone in town being the first to know everything. Grandma Kay was so excited about having her DNA tested. She told everyone that she was going to find her father. There are still people around who remember her mother getting knocked up at 15, who said that was all you could expect from a girl like that. You and me talking, we can figure out family history that no one else knows. For this moment, it’s ours and nobody else’s. No one gossiping, no one raising eyebrows. Yet.”

“Haters gonna hate,” I said. “You’re letting people live rent free in your head. Someone trash talks your grandma, knock their tooth out.” I punched a cornstalk. It bobbed back at me, unharmed. “Maybe next time they’ll think twice about disrespecting you.”

He stopped, assumed a stance, and took a sweeping kick that demolished part of the corn wall. I goggled.

“You know how to fight?”

“Two years of taekwondo classes. My dad thought every man should know the gentle art of self defense. Then he went on a budgeting tear and cut them out.”

“And still you’re worried about what people say about you?”

“I like the discipline of the forms. I hate the sparring.”

Another right turning.

“Where do you get your fightiness from?” Vin asked. “Sounds like your mom wants to make love, not war, and your grandpa is a man of discipline. Is it from your dad’s family?”

“Not really,” I said. “The Ramirezes can fight amongst themselves, but mostly they defeat you by feeding you. But you know, it’s just me. Not every quirk of personality has to be secondhand. I just don’t like to take any shit from anyone, and I don’t see why I should have to.”

“How do you find a job that accommodates that quirk of personality?”

I tried my karate chop on the corn again. “I am currently on the job market.”

“Trying to get settled after college?”

“Um, not exactly. I had a job. But one day this lady went off on me, and…”

“And you didn’t smile and say, ‘Of course, madam.’”

“I might have called her madam. So to speak.”

Vin smiled but didn’t respond, and I was left with my bon mot hanging in the air, rapidly desiccating. Banter, pushback, active argument I could take, but having to digest my own words without conflict sauce was a new and rather bitter dish. How could I defend myself without having any resistance? Instead, here was Vin, studiously staying on the right, thinking who knew what behind that neutral facade.

“I suppose you never lose it with anyone,” I said. “Criticism doesn’t bother you.”

“I often find that I’m rightly criticized,” he said. “When I first started my training to be an EMT, my instructors were always telling me exactly how wrong I was at everything I did. The thing was, they were right. I had a lot to learn, and if I wanted to work in life or death situations, I couldn’t be guessing or second-guessing myself all the time. So I listened and I learned and I worked and I got better, eventually.”

“I guess your work ethic makes you pretty popular.”

“Not really. I might have made a better impression on the veterans if I’d stood up for myself more. Real men fight back, apparently. There’s not a lot of space for humility.”

“Yeah, but does humility really mean letting people tear you down? Maybe you’re just enabling someone else’s power trip.”

He shrugged. “Could be. It’s no skin off my nose. All I want is to get better at what I do, and if the cost of that is hearing some home truths, I’m okay with that. Most of the time.”

“Well, okay, wait a minute. You’re peaceful, and that’s well and good, but your family has a violent heritage. What about the Hatfields and McCoys?”

“Tituses and McGraths,” said Vin automatically. “I’m not sure that there’s anything there worth preserving. It was one of those mountain feuds where honor was at stake and people got killed and revenge got more and more elaborate..”

“There’s a romance to it,” I said. “Honor. Revenge. It sounds like a story.”

“Maybe in epic poetry,” said Vin. “Not when it’s your child or your father or your brother and you live in grief.”

“So what did the Tituses do?”

“I don’t know really know. Everyone up here had a small farm, so they were probably subsistence farmers. I don’t know how the feud started, but I think that most of Andrew Titus’s family were killed in it one way or another.”

“What about Lavinia? She survived long enough to become your ancestor, at least.”

“It’s the men who died, mostly.”

This grim history seemed incongruous with the increasing beauty of the day. A healing breeze passed through the maze, and a few hardy November insects sang in reply. Vin paused and checked his watch. 

“Should we pull out the map? I feel like we’re close to the center, but we could trace our path and see where we are.”

“Never,” I declared. “The real treasure is the friends we made along the way.  Why would anyone call this a haunted maze? There’s nothing wrong with this field.”

“It’s just a local legend,” Vin said. “But I don’t know — maybe I shouldn’t harsh your mellow by telling the story. It’s not pretty.”

“I’m not scared of the corn.”

“It’s your funeral.” Vin took a deep narrative breath. “Once upon a time, there was a crazy mountain cult. They lived in a gulch outside of town. The leader was a man of strict honor. He demanded total loyalty from his family and his followers, and if they didn’t do what he said, he shunned them or killed them. Even his own sons weren’t immune. But he took care of his own.”

I scoffed. “Oh, come on, the guy is Andrew Titus. You’re telling me that the scary legend is just the family feud?”

Vin forged on, building his story. “Across the mountain, there was another family. They were the opposite of the cultists. Their men were libertines and their women loose. They ran stills, and if you wandered into their territory you didn’t come out again. And they had the local government in their pocket. The fighting escalated until there was no way out. It was eye for an eye. Everyone had lost someone, and everyone wanted revenge, and it seemed like only the innocent were dying. So the leader of the cult and the local mayor, who was married to someone from the other side, made a private pact to end the feud by making a sacrifice.”

He paused meaningfully, but I was underwhelmed. “Isn’t sacrificing a good thing?”

“A human sacrifice.”


“They had a mutual enemy, a stranger in town who had done both of them wrong. So secretly, in the middle of the night, they gagged him and bound him and buried him alive, up to his chest, in the middle of a cornfield when the corn was high. The legend says that each man planned to come back later and release the stranger and get him out of town. But both the mayor and the cult leader both died suddenly the next day, and no one was left to come back to rescue the stranger. And that fall, when the corn was harvested, the body was discovered. Legend says that he haunts this field after dark, looking for gruesome revenge so that he can start the feud all over again. And if you disturb his resting place, he comes for you. Right here.”

With a flourish, he led me into a round clearing. In the center of the circle was a pole. Bound to the bottom of a pole was half of a blackened scarecrow, a bag over its head.

“Ooh, that’s freaky,” I admired. “Very effective. I bet this makes the kiddies squeal.”

“I guess.” Vin seemed reluctant to get much closer to the shape. “I don’t like it much myself.”

“Is it a true story?” I had dismissed it as one step away from a fairytale while he was telling it, but somehow seeing the field and the pole and the form made it more concrete.

“There’s a grain of truth. The feud you already know about. I don’t know much about the history of Titusville politics, but there probably was a corrupt mayor. Isn’t government always corrupt? But the main kernel of the story, that a man was lynched and found later, did really happen.”

“He was lynched?” A shock of real horror jolted me.  I started to approach the pole for a closer look, but somehow, the figure looked so extremely dead it seemed almost alive.

“Yeah, that’s probably the ugliest part,” said Vin apologetically.

“Lynched.” With whiplash speed, the fairytale snapped into a hellish focus. I knelt before the scarecrow and touched it with a clammy hand. “This isn’t burnt. It’s black.” I tried to calm my breathing. No point in jumping to conclusions without more evidence. “When did this happen?”

“Around the time the feud ended, actually,” he said. “Early 1930s?”

I pictured an orphanage, an abandoned infant with a genetic connection to a feuding mountain family. “1934?”

“Maybe? I mean, a human sacrifice pact is pretty far-fetched, but it’s all too believable that a black man in jail could have been dragged out and lynched in those days. This has never been an area with any kind of black community. Who knows where the man came from? Who knows what he did?”

“Maybe he fathered a child with a white woman,” I whispered, searching the shrouded features in vain, as I did with the photo of Kay Titus, for any resemblance to my grandfather.

“That’s a possibility,” he said doubtfully, “but I don’t think we can really know.”

“I know,” I choked.

Vin turned sharply to look at me. “Oh my god,” he said after a moment. “You never mentioned that part of your family story.”

“I didn’t see how it could possibly have any bearing on your family.”

“Erin, I’m really sorry.” He knelt beside me. “I had no idea. This just seemed like a way to show you some of the local color and to find a private place to talk. I didn’t mean anything by it. It never entered my head that the legend could be have any connection at all to your grandfather being an orphan.”

“You didn’t think maybe a story about a lynching was offensive by itself? The local color in the mountains must be white.” My hands shook as I tried the knots on the splintered rope holding the scarecrow to the pole. “You didn’t think that maybe someone not from here wouldn’t find a casual little lynching a charming story?”

“Most of the people going through this maze on the weekend are thrill seekers from Roanoke,” said Vin.

“Then they’re wrong too,” I yelled. “How can you stand here and let people laugh and shriek at a black man dying?”

“Maybe we should go,” he said, standing and offering me his hand like I wanted his help up. “I’m sorry, really I am."

My hands were in the straw, tearing handfuls off of the pole. “Why do you care? It’s not your great-grandfather. In fact, your family was the one who killed him. Good thing my grandpa got out alive. What would they have done to him? Lynched him too?”

“Erin,” Vin said cautiously, “you can’t be absolutely sure that it is your great-grandfather.” I hurled straw at him. It fluttered ineffectively to the ground.

“You son of a bitch,” I said. “I don’t want to be related to you or your whore grandma. You don’t get to have my grandpa in your family.”

“You need to stop and think about what you’re saying.”

“What, are you going to make me?” With one final tug, the scarecrow came off the pole and collapsed on the ground.

“You are upset,” said Vin. “I can understand if you don’t want to be around me. You’ll also understand if I don’t want to hear my grandmother insulted. In my own small way, I don’t care to hear myself abused.” He reached in his jacket and took out one of the maps. “I’ll leave this with you, and when you’re done vandalizing someone else’s property, you can find your way back to the car and I’ll drive you to town, and then you can leave.”

He walked off into the maze. I looked around at my handiwork: the bare pole, and the mutilated shape on the ground. The flat alien sky gave me no sense of direction. I was alone in a cornfield with the body of my great-grandfather.

No: with a straw effigy. The legend was a ghost story. Last Halloween I would have come here and laughed my way through the maze and enjoyed the frisson of horror at the makeshift corpse. I wouldn’t have considered the human history. It would have been just a story to me, just like it was to Vin and anyone else in Titusville.

And I’d driven Vin away. What had I called his grandmother? I would have drawn blood from anyone who talked about my family like that. He’d just walked away. And it was my own fault that I was alone now, alone in a haunted field, where my great-grandfather had died alone, unable to make a sound, vowing to take vengeance on anyone who desecrated the site where he’d breathed his last…

Something touched my shoulder, and I screamed and whirled around. Vin jumped back at my shriek, but he held out the map to me.

“I got angry. I didn’t think about how you might be in shock,” he said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

I fell in beside him as he navigated through the maze.

“You call that angry?” I tried to laugh, but it came out all shuddery. “I could eat you for breakfast any day.”

“I’d like to see you try,” he said. “Don’t forget the two years of taekwondo.”

I picked up the pieces of my shattered emotions. “I don’t have a good track record of apologies,” I said, “so I don’t really know how to say this best. But I’m sorry about… back there, and the stuff that came out of my mouth. I didn’t mean it, I think.”

“You think?”

“Well, I mean, it was my great-grandfather there.”

“Maybe it was,” he said. “And it doesn’t really matter what you say about me, or about Titusville. But you should not have talked about my grandmother that way.”

I was unquestionably in the wrong, and it made me defensive. “I just get like that when I’m angry.”

“And?” said Vin after a moment.

“And what?”

“You say that like it excuses you.”

“Yes, I know it’s an excuse.”

“It’s an explanation. To my mind, it’s no excuse.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Being angry explains why you lashed out. It makes sense of your behavior. But it’s not a good excuse for it. It’s not so compelling that I think to myself, ‘Yes, she was right to behave that way.’”

“What other reason would I have?” I said. “Of course I shouldn’t have said it, but it’s not like I have anything personal against your grandma. It’s not like I was personally calling her a…” He tensed expectantly, and I thought better of completing the sentence. “All I know about her is that…”

“Is that she was a single mother by choice,” he said. “And you don’t know anything about her life circumstances, or her family background, or why that might have seemed like a good decision to her, and you pulled out the fact against her because you wanted to lash out at me. Seconds before, you were furious because I accidentally took you to a place where something horrible happened to your family almost a century ago, and then you insult my grandma, who is, in fact, alive at this moment and has never done a thing to you. And she was so excited and nervous about meeting you and your grandpa that she’s home having a panic attack today.”

We made it out of the maze alive, if not unscathed. It would have been a fine moment to part company, but we still had to share a ride back into town. My stomach was churning, but whether it was with hunger or with anger or with a creeping remorse, I couldn’t tell. My temper flares up and simmers back down all day long, but perhaps Vin was one of those slow burn people who rarely get angry, and then rarely forgive. Behind the wheel, eyes on the road, he seemed untouchable. I felt 18 inches tall.

“I was wrong,” I said, “but you are too.”

“How so?”

“You said it didn’t matter what I said about you. I think it matters, if it wasn’t true.”

“Forget about it,” he said, trying to sound light and unembarrassed.

A mile passed in silence.

“Maybe you could tell me about your grandma?” I asked in a small voice.

He considered, then sighed. “You know,” he said, “let’s talk about something else for a while.” And so for the rest of the ride we chatted of news and nothings. When we got to my car he texted me the photo of his grandma and I sent him one of grandpa, and then I cried in my car all the way back to Blacksburg.


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