c1999 Airweaver

Warren MacDuff came to the small town set deep in the Carolina hills for peace and quiet. God knows he didn't need distraction. His agent had been on his case for months over the new novel, and he hadn't a fresh idea in his head. "Rainbows End" had been a smash. Great reviews, weeks on the best seller list, even scored a literary prize or two. Maybe that was the problem, a fear he couldn't follow up. But every time he tried to write, the damn cursor just sat there blinking on the screen and he'd come up empty. He had to get out of Atlanta. Away from the noise, the cursed phone, Cordelia. Damn, how that had fallen apart! At first he hoped he could turn the ruins of their marriage into a rewarding book, but it was all too close to home. Yes, coming here to this outpost of civilization was the best move he'd made in years. Here he could concentrate, get those creative juices flowing again, come up with something even better than "Rainbows End."

And the town turned out to be attractive; the folks friendly, without being pushy. He'd loaded his gear in the Explorer and left Atlanta on a Tuesday, arriving in Hurtersville two days later. He had free use of a "cabin" by the lake just out of town owned by one of his old frat buddies who'd taken pity on him. That was what made coming to Hurtersville possible in the first place. He'd pulled into the Sinclair station for directions to the cabin. "Oh, you must mean the old Carter place," said the gas attendant, whose uniform proclaimed his name to be Buster. "Wouldn't call it no cabin, though. Nobody's lived there regular ever since them troubles they speak of. Got kind of run down. Bought by some Yankee who spooked off for some reason. Anyway, ain't been back in donkey's years." (Yes, that sounded rather like the Hank of fraternity days: generous to a fault, but first one off at any sign of trouble. MacDuff remembered how the cops had once raided a riotous Delta Chi party; Hank had made a speedy getaway over the rooftops.)

The cabin turned out to be much more than a mere shack in the hills. Downright spacious, in fact. A two-story farm house dating from the 19th century overlooking the lake, with a broad, overgrown lawn in front that sloped down towards the water and backed by a thicket of second-growth hickory and ash. MacDuff liked it immediately. In an ideal setting, so peaceful and quiet. Just what he needed. The weather was perfect, too, and he enjoyed settling in on his own (nice to be his boss once again), tidying up the place (nothing a broom and a bit of elbow grease couldn't fix), and a run down to the general store for provisions. Within two days he had the place in running order and the computer up and humming. And it was working: he was starting to get ideas. Almost too many of them, in fact. Away from Cordelia he began to see his broken marriage in a different light. Without the distractions of city life he could get it all down -- the pain, the misunderstandings, the anguish. For three days he worked feverishly, poring out his soul, barely stopping to eat. He was writing again!

The morning of his fourth day in the Hurtersville "cabin" dawned dark and overcast. A stiff wind blew down toward the lakefront, creating small whitecaps and setting the trees in motion. MacDuff was so intent on his work that he didn't take much notice of the change of weather until around four in the afternoon, when the lights suddenly went out and the computer died. Shit. Just when he was on a roll. Well, never mind. He had an oil lamp and could carry on just as well with pen and paper. Within 15 minutes, however, he had lost all concentration. He could hear the rain beating a tattoo against the windowpanes. The wind had picked up and howled among the eves. The formerly peaceful cabin was suddenly filled with the sound of great rumbling rolls of thunder. All MacDuff could think was that Atlanta hadn't prepared him for a major storm in Appalachia.

He went to the front window and stared out into the gathering gloom of nightfall towards the lake. He found himself pacing restlessly. Just then, he thought he heard the cry of a human voice among the peals of thunder. Was his imagination playing him tricks? No, there it was again. Closer this time. A cry of despair. And then, during one particularly brilliant flash of lightening, he saw her. A girl, she couldn't have been more than 18, dressed in a white nightgown, running across the sloping lawn as if in fear of her very life. An exceptionally pretty girl, he noticed. But the thing that caught MacDuff's eye immediately was her hair. It was so profuse she appeared more in danger of drowning in her hair than from the pouring rain. It streamed around her in vast, rain-soaked torrents as if it had a life of its own. It scarcely seemed natural, trailing out that way, whipped by the wind, engulfing her in a wet array of whirling tendrils. It was the longest hair MacDuff had ever seen, so long she seemed in danger of tripping over it. She brushed the billowing masses impatiently aside and staggered on. Then, as quickly as she had come, the girl disappeared from view, fleeing into the woods opposite the side of the house from where the road ran down to Hurtersville. Just before she vanished, MacDuff thought he heard her cry out. Something like, "Don't let them do it!"

The storm blew itself out overnight, and next morning was so serene MacDuff wondered if he hadn't imagined the entire thing. What girl would be wandering around outside in that kind of weather? Where would she live? As far as he knew there were no other houses this side of the village. And was such amazing hair even possible? Still, MacDuff couldn't get the image of that girl with the incredibly long hair out of his mind. He remembered what the guy in the gas station had said about some mysterious "troubles" and Hank being "spooked off." He wondered if there was any connection. He'd have to learn more. His writer's curiosity had been aroused. He fired up the SUV and drove down to the Sinclair station. On the way he wondered how he could bring the subject up without appearing overly nosy. MacDuff was no Yankee like Hank, but he knew how these mountain folk could turn tongue-tied whenever strangers started prying into matters that didn't concern them.

The problem was solved by the sheriff himself. MacDuff had just started talking to Buster when a police car drove into the station for a refill. "Hey, sheriff. This here is the fella's staying up at the old Carter place." MacDuff went over and introduced himself. Always best to stay on the good side of the law. "Nice farm house, that. Must have a bit of history."

"Oh, you must be talking about the suicide. That was a big deal around here. Don't know much about it, though. Before my time. Back before the TVA put in the dam. Sometime around '44 or so. Now what was the name of that girl? Buster here would know."

"You be thinkin' of Nellie Carter," the gas attendant replied. "One of them Romeo and Juliet things, that was. They say she was in love with a fella' over Dillsboro way, but her kin would have nothing to do with him. So one day she took down the shotgun and blew her brains out. Pity that. They say Nell was the prettiest girl in the mountains."

MacDuff learned nothing more, but at least he now had a name and approximate date to go on. He'd read up on it, but it would have to wait for another day. The offices of the Hurtersville Weekly Gazette were tight shut.

Three weeks later, MacDuff's novel was coming along nicely. He was up to chapter four. It was turning into a book about unfulfilled love, based on his life with Cordelia. He found himself falling in love with her all over again and thinking of asking her to marry him a second time when he got back to Atlanta. A lovely girl, capable of loving; why couldn't he love in return? He was awoken from his reverie by a knock on the door. He opened it to a man in uniform he didn't know. "Your name MacDuff? I'm from the power company. We're installing a new generator down at the dam -- trying to attract more industry to this part of the state. We're so far out we're off the grid, so afraid you'll be without power for the next day or two. But we'll try to have you up and running soon as we can."

MacDuff was not concerned to be without electricity for a short while. He could do his cooking on the open hearth and had plenty of pencils for his work. It might prove a small adventure. That evening MacDuff sat before a roaring fire reading through that day's handwritten drafts. Some good stuff here. Yes, he was in top form. Suddenly, he thought he heard a soft moan coming from somewhere upstairs. Yes, there it was again. He lit a lantern and went to investigate. It seemed to be coming from one of the front bedrooms. The way that room was furnished had earlier led him to believe it might once have been Nell's.

He quietly open the door, and saw the girl from the storm. As before, she was dressed completely in white. She was seated in front of a walnut, Depression-era dresser with her hair thrown back over the chair, where it pored down in a vast cascade clear onto the floor. She was brushing it with intense concentration. The very act seemed to give her the utmost pleasure. At every stroke she uttered a soft, little sigh. MacDuff stood in the doorway transfixed by the heavenly apparition, or whatever it was. Although the light was dim, his view was much better than during the storm. He was much closer and could almost reach out to caress the shimmering masses. Her hair was now sleek and smooth, untousled by wind or rain. It was perfectly straight, and so rich and pure the sight took his breath away. He turned the lantern to its maximum setting, and her hair sparkled like spun gold in its glow. She seemed not to notice him standing there, so intent was she on her task. MacDuff had no idea how long he stood there watching her brush out her spectacular golden treasure. At one point she gathered up its entire weight and carefully readjusted her mane before resuming its grooming. MacDuff could only marvel at its exceptional length and beauty. Why, its length must far exceed her height! Finally, she spoke, soft and low, but he could make out every word in the hushed room. "Is this good enough for you, my dearest," she said. She paused, then spoke again. "I will try to give you all I can." MacDuff shut the door and left deep in thought.

After this second appearance of the mysterious vision, MacDuff was unable to rest until he knew more. He was unable to sleep. The memory of this fantastic creature haunted his every woken moment. She was so very beautiful. And that hair! A raiment fit for a queen. The longest, most exquisite hair he could imagine possible. A second visit to the Hurtersville Gazette brought him a partial answer. He worked backwards, starting with the building of the dam, which was finished shortly after the end of World War Two. He read steadily through the issues for 1945, and was half way through the previous year, when he found it. A short item, to be sure, but it confirmed what Buster had said:

Hurtersville, NC
August 18, 1944

Sheriff's deputies were dispatched last evening to the farm of Jim and Lucy Carter just outside town to investigate the sudden death of their eldest daughter, Nellie, age 19, who initial reports state died under mysterious circumstances. The cause of death is attributed to gunshot wounds. Further investigation discloses these wounds to have been self-afflicted, owing to the proximity of the recovered weapon and projector analysis. The victim is known to have been despondent from an amorous liaison not sanctioned by her parents.

There were no further details. MacDuff dug up a few other items about the Carters, who seem to have been pillars of a particular church in the area and well-respected farmers. They had apparently left Hurtersville years before, because the present Gazette editor knew nothing about them other than the apparent suicide.

All that summer MacDuff toiled away on his novel. He kept a sharp lookout for Nell, but she never returned, and the vision slowly faded from his memory. Just as well, he thought. He needed to concentrate all his energies on his project.

It took old Molly Sloane to clear up the mystery to MacDuff's satisfaction. He had first met Molly when he began buying her wonderful vegetables. Molly seemed to know everybody between Knoxville and Charlotte and their goings-on. Why, yes, she knew all about the Carters. "That poor, sweet Nell."

Mountain folks, however, can be secretive, and it wasn't until one day towards fall, while they were sampling some of Molly's famous hard cider, that she finally opened up and told the story. They were sitting on Molly's front porch having a second sample of the brew. On the third glass, MacDuff confessed that he had actually seen Nell, not once, but twice.

"Then you won't mind me telling you, seeing as how that makes you practically family," old Molly said finally. "Nellie, you might have heard, was the prettiest girl that ever came out of these hills. Had a crush on some young man I can't rightly remember. Billy Taylor, yes, that's the one. Anyway, the way I hear it, one day Billy told Nell he thought she had the prettiest hair he'd ever seen and would she please grow it long specially for him. She was more than happy to oblige, but she hadn't figured on her Pa and Ma. See, they belonged to this church that's very particular about vanity. Everytime Nell grew her hair even a little bit, her Pa would tell her to chop it all off. Then, when Nell started refusing, he'd take her out to the woodshed and do it himself. Understand they had some real rows at that place. Anyway, Nell started getting paler and paler. Couldn't eat proper. They say she just wasted away and finally took her own way out."

Now MacDuff understood. If she couldn't be allowed to grow her hair in life, she would do so in death. He had never believed in ghosts or any of that preternatural crap. But now he knew better. Poor Nell had been growing her hair for years for a suitor who had probably moved to the city and forgotten all about her years ago. Talk about unfulfilled love! No wonder his book, now almost finished, had turned out on that theme. He thought of Cordelia and couldn't wait to get back to her and try to make amends.

But first, he knew he had to see Nell one final time. Now that he knew what she was doing and why. But he had not seen her vision now for months. Perhaps she was gone forever. Then he considered. Nell had died before they put in the dam. That meant the house probably didn't have electricity in those days. Yes, and the two times he had seen her were the times he was without power: first the storm, then the time they were changing the generator. The night before MacDuff decided to leave Hurtersville, he put his plan into action. He loaded all his gear into the Explorer, built a large fire, then when out and turned off the mains. He ate his last meal by the fireside, hoping his idea would work.

After an hour he went outside for more firewood, and when he returned he found Nell. She was seated in the living room by the fire. Her hair was loose as before and seemed even longer and more abundant than ever, if such things are possible. The fire illuminated those marvelous tresses and made them shine to perfection. She was busy rocking a cradle. Each movement of her arm sent vast ripples flowing through the exquisite canopy of her hair. Her tresses danced and swayed in the firelight. They flowed in rich profusion down past her skirt and spread their beauty across the floor. She began to sing a lullaby MacDuff remembered from his own childhood:

Hush, little baby, don't say a word.
Papa's goin' to buy you a mockingbird.
If that mockingbird don't sing,
Papa's goin' to buy you a diamond ring....

Perhaps Billy Taylor had never left after all. MacDuff softly closed the door and drove away, leaving Nell to dream her own special dreams.

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