A Conclusion in the Caves

“Star Witness” by Joe Meno: Episode Seven, the Finale

A Conclusion in the Caves

Previous Episode: Episode 6: A Hidden World

  1. Putting the pin down, Shelley turned to Raymond Dove and said, “It’s the deputy.”

“Which deputy?”

She glanced over at the pink-and-white map again, the one Jamie had hung up on the length of yarn. It was of a magic forest that led to a series of black holes. Shelley shuddered. “Can you please call the sheriff? Tell him I know where Jamie is at.”

“Where’s that?”

“The caves. Down by the river. That’s where she is.”

“Hold on a minute there…”

“Please. I have to go.”

Raymond Dove nodded and handed the folded knife back to Shelley. “In case you need it.”

She gave a half-smile, looked down at the knife, and took off running, the cloud of her breath quickly disappearing behind her.

Star Witness: A Story in Seven Parts (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 274)

As a 10-year-old, Shelley had gotten lost in one of the caves beside the river. Stuck more than lost. She had been playing in it all summer, had even read A Wrinkle in Time hidden inside. But after an exceptionally powerful rain, Shelley climbed down into one of the caves without thinking, where she fell into a brackish pool that had not been there before and got her foot stuck. She began to swallow water before Lyle Pearson, the postman, who lived by the river, pulled her out.

Shelley felt that old panic, could remember the taste of river water as she found her bicycle where she had left it alongside the cemetery gates, and began pedaling back through town. There was the shape of the abandoned gas station, the municipal library, the fading stores along the main thoroughfare looking ghostly and forlorn.

Once more, she took a right at the gravel road away from town, crossed the blue bridge, and returned to the woods that lined the river. The river smelled damp, and she could sense its movement, even this far away. Something flashed red up ahead, and Shelley squeezed the brakes on her bike.

A squad car.

Though she could not tell who the car belonged to — they all looked the same — something inside her turned, and Shelley knew it was the deputy, out here waiting for Jamie to show herself. She cursed silently and crept off her bicycle and hurried to the culvert along the side of the road. There, Shelley laid her bicycle down as softly as she could, and, pulling herself up the other side of culvert, made her way on hands and knees through the brush. Everything was wet—the ground below her and the leaves above her. Somehow, through the circle of trees above, she could see a fragment of the moon. Shelley took the knife Raymond Dove had given her and held it in her fist as she crawled. She knew she would not be brave enough to use it but, like an object from some long-ago story, hoped the sight of such a thing would be enough to keep her safe.

Audio: “Star Witness” | A Story in Seven Parts

In the woods, Shelley once again found the tree full of God’s eyes. The tiny kites, with their bizarre patterns, became knowable, then unknowable, as they turned in the dark, until she realized she was staring at them like stars. Shelley thought again of what she had read out loud from the book: “To ward off evil. To observe.” She hurried past the tree and its yarn ornaments and down to the outcropping of rock and fallen limbs, where the riverbank seemed to erode a little more each year.

Ahead, she saw a pink string knotted around the pylon of a bridge that had years ago washed away. Several yards after that, Shelley found a pink knot tied to a bush of small white flowers, the names of which she was sure her grandmother had once taught her.

Shelley scuffled along the bank, digging at fallen bricks and dirt with her hands, calling out Jamie’s name. Then she remembered their song, their code: one short whistle, two long. But there was no reply. She tried again, whistling slightly louder. A weak sound came back. Shelley kept whistling and finally found a small cave, closer to the size of an animal’s den, and the shape of a figure hiding within, hidden beneath a red windbreaker. She climbed down into the cave on hands and knees, looking around. Everything inside was made of yarn and bits of fabric, a colorful nest, full of God’s eyes and loops of strands and string. The girl, Jamie, was asleep, holed up against one of the low, curved walls. Her forehead was placed against the sleeve of her coat. Shelley felt her cheek, which was warm. When the girl finally looked up, she seemed displaced, disoriented, but then smiled widely, revealing a missing dogtooth.

“Are you okay?” Shelley asked, and the girl, no longer smiling, nodded once.

“Come on,” Shelley said and helped her to her feet and out of the cave.

The girl was barefoot, Shelley noticed, and so she tried walking with Jamie on her back, her arms around Shelley’s neck, as they moved together through the woods.

“Where are your shoes?” Shelley asked.

“I lost them. When I got scared. When I ran.”

“Over by the cemetery?”

The girl nodded. Shelley could feel the motion against the back of her neck.

“What were you doing out there, Jamie? With the deputy?”

The girl’s breath was warm against Shelley’s left ear as she spoke. “We only ever talk. Ever since the parade last year. We meet at the cemetery. We never do anything. Sometimes he gives me things, but mostly we only ever talk.”

“But then why did you run off?”

The girl cleared her throat, and Shelley set her down. “Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because the last time he told me he wanted to hurt himself. He said he had feelings and that they made him want to die sometimes. I didn’t know what to do. So I stayed away. I put up the God’s eyes all over town. Put them everywhere I could.”

“How come?”

“To watch over. So they could see.”

Shelley did not know what to say. She felt proud that she had read the God’s eyes correctly, had understood their impractical message.

The girl went on: “This afternoon, I was riding my bike in front of my house, and he pulled up in his police car and told me he was leaving. He asked to see me one more time before he did. When we got to the cemetery, he told me he wanted me to go with him. But I didn’t want to. He got upset, so I ran. As fast as I could. Through the woods. He tried to follow me in his car. I went and hid by the Doves’ for a while, and then I came here when it got dark because I thought he might find me. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Shelley put a hand to the girl’s shoulder. But it was too hard to see in the dark to read the girl’s expression.

On through the woods, they made their way to the culvert. The police squad car was still parked in the middle of the road. The dome light was on, Shelley could see.

“We can’t sneak past him,” the girl said, and Shelley told her to shush.

The deputy was sitting in the driver’s seat, and the door was open, which was why the cabin light was on.

Shelley could not see anything other than the back of the deputy’s head, though it appeared he had one foot out of the car, as if he was unable to make up his mind.

“Okay,” Shelley said. “We’ll just go quietly. One by one. I’ll go first.”

The girl did not look like she would be able to do it. “I can’t,” she said. “He chased me. I’m too scared.”

Shelley gave the girl a stern look and said, “Don’t look at him. Just keep your eyes on me. Come on now.”

The girl shook her head.

Shelley squinted hard at the girl and handed her the knife. “This is a magic knife. It’s from Raymond Dove. Do you know what he’s done with this knife? Nobody can hurt you if you’re holding it. Do you understand?”

The girl blinked, somewhere between belief and disbelief.

“Come on now.”

Inching along the underbrush, once again on hands and knees, Shelley carefully turned and saw the deputy was sitting, legs splayed, holding a shiny silver service revolver in his lap. She looked over and saw the girl had stopped moving, had gone white-faced. Shelley turned and got hold of her nylon hood and began to pull. Another four or five feet and they would be out of the shadow of the car. Shelley closed her eyes and could hear the abstract gestures, the abstract lines, the interference from the police radio chattering beside them. She imagined them as dashes and dots, as a field of unnamed punctuation marks. All she had to do now was pass through.

But the girl had gone stock-still. “Come on,” she whispered. Under some kind of spell, Shelley thought.

The deputy sat in the car, muttering to himself. “Help. Help me,” he was saying.

The girl had become powerless, like a faint and tiny animal. Shelley put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on. Look at me. Look at me, Jamie. Come on. All you have you have to do is look straight ahead.”

The deputy continued to call out.

One hand forward, then the knee, the noise, the hidden chatter of the police band and the terrifying words of the deputy appearing and disappearing into the darkness around them.

One at a time, they finally made it to where Shelley had left her bike in the culvert. “Better if we run,” Shelley said.

The girl looked scared, but Shelley took her hand, upright now, running as fast as they could along the culvert toward town.

Behind them, a powerful noise, like a firework, exploded. But both girls kept running, neither turning to look back.

2. On the way, a half-mile from town, a squad car from the sheriff’s office arrived. Before Shelley could see his face, she recognized the tall white cattleman hat belonging to Sheriff Wes Joad. Together, the two girls ran hand in hand toward the flashing light until everything became a soft, hypnotic red.

Later, Shelley did not know what to say or think. Silently from the back seat of the squad car, she watched the sheriff take Jamie Fay in his arms and carry her bodily up the front steps of the porch. From behind glass fogged by her breath, Shelley saw the expressions on the faces of Jamie’s parents. Later, though she could not say how much later, the sheriff returned to the car, adjusted the rear-view mirror, and pulled away from the curb. The digital clock on the dashboard read 2:30 a.m.

“I left my bike. Somewhere out by the woods,” Shelley said solemnly.

“Have to go back for it tomorrow,” the sheriff murmured. “Your grandmother’s worried sick about you as is. I don’t believe anyone will bother it.”

She nodded, and then, unsure if he had seen her, said, “Okay.”

Shelley turned and stared out the window as the remaining buildings of the town passed by, staring at how it had all changed. In flashes of what seemed like photos, she saw the landmarks, businesses, shops, a single faded American flag left unfurled after dark in front of the VFW, and several houses in the soft, purple light of the approaching sun. The girl watched all go past, feeling heartsick.

All of it looks different, she thought.

The sheriff turned and spoke over his shoulder, “They’ll take Jamie over to the hospital in Dwyer tomorrow, be sure she’s okay. I have a feeling she’ll be all right. And you’ll be home in a few minutes.”

There was some static on the police band, which Shelley could not piece together. The sheriff, with a great degree of effort, lifted the radio receiver and answered as he continued to drive.

“That’s a 10-4. Tell Percy I’ll be by there in a half-hour or so.”

He replaced the receiver and turned to speak over his shoulder again.

“Looks like the deputy went and shot himself in the chest. They got him in the hospital over in Dwyer. Sounds like he’ll live.” The sheriff tried to smile in the rear-view mirror. “Everything’s going to be okay, don’t you worry. Everything’s going to be all right, you’ll see.”

Shelley felt unsure. It was then she noticed that she had been holding the folded knife belonging to Raymond Dove. The girl, Jamie, must have handed it back to her. She did not know when, only that it was sitting there. She looked up and continued to watch the remnants of town fly past.

“None of it. None of it’s the same,” she finally said.

3. Once home, after the sheriff had departed with one of her grandmother’s cakes, Shelley lay on the sofa with her head in her grandmother’s lap. It smelled like chartreuse and flour and honey, her grandmother’s nightgown. The girl turned away from the lamp that had been switched on, hiding her face against one of the sofa cushions.

“I thought you had left me,” her grandmother said. “I thought you had left me and were never coming back. Like your mother. I thought you had.”

Shelley began to cry. She felt her grandmother stroke her hair, the small hard bones, the callused fingertips, the soft palm against the side of her face.

“I’m sorry for scaring you. I’m sorry for running off like that.”

“You have a right to do as you please. I’m just an old nuisance and I smoke too much and I just was afraid you might just hold it against me.”

“I won’t run off like that again. I promise.”

“You had a night, didn’t you? A dark night. I heard it on the scanner. You did a very brave thing. I know I’d never have the courage myself. But you—”

“I didn’t know I could. There’s a whole world, and I had no idea about it.”

“You’ll go. You’ll find yourself out in that wide-open world and wonder whatever it was that ever kept you.”

“Grandma, I—”

“No. There’s no need to talk about it now. We’ll talk about it in the morning. You and I. We’ll have ourselves a talk. Now, are you ready for bed?”

“Do you mind if I sit here another minute with you?”

“Who, me? I don’t mind a bit. You can sit here as long as you like.”

“The birds’ll be up.”

“Shhh. Never mind them.”

Shelley closed her eyes, taking in the scent of the entire house. A moment of silence passed between them, and soon the old woman began to whisper:

Now, where were we, boys and girls? Where were we? Oh, yes. The woodsman had lost chicken after chicken to that fox and his fiddle and tracked him down to his den in the woods. And just then, the woodsman saw that wily old’ fox’s den, right there, and he reached in with one burly arm and grabbed that fox by the furry white scruff of its neck, and with his other arm, he threw back that great shining axe, and that little wily fox howled out in fright…

Shelley felt her grandmother’s eyes upon her, felt the soft fabric of her nightgown against her cheek, felt how good it was to be home again. The girl opened her eyes, staring up.

And then…and then, that woodsman, well, he let that wily fox go.

Shelley blinked. “That’s not how it goes.”

“That’s how it goes tonight.” And the voice came again, pleasant, soothing:

He didn’t have the heart or meanness to kill that awful varmint. He let that fox go and watched him run off through the thorns. And his puffy red tail was like a flame flickering in the woods. After that, the woodsman didn’t lose another bird—not a single one.

Shelley closed her eyes and felt the colors of the room change before her one by one. Somewhere a dog barked, and then there were the sounds she had been waiting for: the murmuration of the birds; the tolling of the grandfather clock striking four, telling its own story. Before her a tree appears, as if in a dream, and then it is a dream, and before her is an all-white tree, without flowers or leaves. But when she looks again, it has blossomed, each flower a different color, each opening before her eyes. One, two, three.

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