A Woman With a Mason Jar Walks Along the Natchez Trace Mumbling to Herself
by Betsy Phillips
Wiley Harpe, Wiley Harpe, the pike they put your head on is long gone, and your skull is also missing, its final resting place forgotten. But the wind and the woods, they still remember the sound of bone on bark and the last noise that still means you in this world–knock, knock, knock.
You heard there were witches here and every place their feet touched earth, the grass refuses to grow. And you, you hopscotched those bare spots, placing your feet in the footsteps of those women, daring them to come and get you.
And then bad luck got you instead. If there was one thing you must have thought, when you were standing on the gallows waiting for your last fall, it was that witches were no real worry. A man’s enemy is more often just his own misfortune. No witch did you in. It was just the coincidence of you and a man who recognized you standing in the same crowd.
That’s a mighty big coincidence, don’t you think, Wiley? If you do still think, out here in the woods, you being mostly a memory of a bad time and a knocking noise most folks mistake for a lazy woodpecker.
No, your downfall lay in your predictability.
Your brother. You remember him? Big ol’ Micajah Harpe, shoulders broad as an ox’s back, fists like two hot anvils? They say he killed at least two babies, just out of the blue. Once upon a time, a baby cried and he grabbed that baby and slammed it into a stone fireplace or a cave wall or the cold, hard ground. It varies from telling to telling–how many babies, what he broke those small, delicate skulls open against. But the point is the same–he was an impulsive man.
He knew what he wanted and the moment he wanted it, he did it, being used to facing no real opposition to his whims due to his size.
That’s not a man who plans. He’s never had need of learning how.
You know what kind of man learns to plan, to scheme, to double-cross? Sure you do, Wiley, sure you do. The one who cannot win without a strategy learns to be strategic as a matter of necessity.
Do you think your brother ever suspected? When the posse was on your tail and there were two ways to safety–over the hill and through the swamp–you sent him over the hill and took all your wives through the swamp. You knew, yes, yes, you did, that, when given a choice between a swamp and anything else, men will choose to chase the evil-doer who stays on dry land.
Sure, maybe you thought he had a chance of escaping. But you had to know you were probably sacrificing him to save yourself.
There are so many stories about that moment and in almost every single one, it’s him, your brother, who is said to have urged you and your shared women into the swamp. Because who could have believed you would have planned against him? That you would choose your own life over his? The mistake they make is assuming you had honor.
But we know better.
A man who escapes with you will, soon enough, wish he’d escaped from you. First that murderous brute, your own blood, Micajah, and then that old land pirate, Charles Mason, who busted out of jail with you and then met his end when you chopped off his head for the reward.
Too bad about that man in the crowd. Yes, too, too bad. But you and your brother traveled with three women, and you had to know, from that old Scottish play, three is the smallest coven that works. Three women sleeping with devils.
Doesn’t always work out well for the devils. And stories get passed down, Wiley. Yours came to me. And I knew I would find you out here in the deep woods, little more than a cold shadow, a shiver that runs down an occasional spine.
Do you think a man can be redeemed? You must have given it some thought all these years, sitting out here among the trees, watching time pass, waiting on those angels or devils who’ve neglected to collect you. Do you think a man who kept his women sick and lonely and afraid can change? Can a man who can’t be trusted near a baby be trusted to raise a son? And, even if a man could become someone different, someone a woman could love without pain, do you think he would?
I’ll be honest, Wiley. I don’t. I think there are kinds of evil that pretty much carry through. And worse, I know it doesn’t matter. Learning the truth about a man? Well, a woman’s not always allowed to protect herself or her child. There’s always some judge, some preacher, some cold-hearted father saying “you made your bed, you lie in it.”
You kill the men who give you freedom, Wiley Harpe. That’s what I know about you. It’s almost like you can’t resist.
So, what do you think will happen when my husband comes home and he finds it empty–no furniture, no drapes, none of the plates we got at our wedding, no sign of me or the boy at all—nothing except for an oddly decorated Mason jar sitting on the kitchen counter?
I don’t think he’ll be able to resist opening it, maybe hurling it at a wall in anger and breaking it into a thousand sparkling pieces. And, if not, I have no doubt you’ll convince him to twist the lid. To let you go.
And what happens when you get loose in that house with him, Wiley Harpe, what then?