Whatever it was or wasn’t had the little town in a turmoil. The Traveler’s Story.
July 31, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: The community of Saratoga has dug its way deep into a mysterious stretch of thick timberland known as the biological crossroads of the Big Thicket. It is a strange phenomenon created during the Ice Age when massive continental glaciers pushed so many species south. As a result, sloughs of cypress and tupelo can be found near arid sandhills that support cactus and yucca. Eastern bluebirds nest alongside roadrunners, far from the western deserts they call home.
The Setting: The unincorporated community lies thirty-eight miles northeast of Beaumont. It was originally named New Sour Lake because of the aroma rising up from its springs of Mineral Water. An entrepreneur built a hotel and rental cottages, believing that he could create another version of New York’s Saratoga, where the wealthy and elite would come to find the curative powers of his healing waters. He waited. Nobody came, not many anyway.
The Sights: Within Saratoga’s Big Thicket Museum are historical and cultural rooms that contain farming, lumbering and oilfield tools, kitchen utensils, and clothing worn by early pioneers who dueled the hard times and hardships of those unpredictable woodlands that sprawled beyond their homes. Typical is the Dunn Cabin, built of hand-hewn logs along the banks of the Trinity River in 1890.
At the far end of Bragg Road at night, ghostly lights for decades have been seen dancing through the trees. The dirt roadway, eight miles long and straight as a rifle shot, is perfect for late night hikes, provided you aren’t concerned with the haunting Saratoga lights that keep flickering and flirting with the darkness. The lights turn from yellow to white and often red, swaying back and forth, and rumors say it is the spirit of an old railroad man, searching with a lantern for his head. It was severed by a train the night he stumbled and fell upon the tracks. Maybe. Maybe not. The lights beckon still. The community is used to mysteries it cannot explain.
The Story: The little caravan rolled through the gray rain of an East Texas night, four trucks that groaned, grumbled, and groveled their way past sleeping hamlets in the pines, and no one paid any attention at all to their passing. The big man with the worried eyes stared into a darkness as empty as his wallet. His circus was dying, and all that could save it was dry weather, and the rains kept stalking him through the Big Thicket country.
He glanced over at the bearded Hungarian who drove the lead truck down a narrow, winding roadway through a tunnel of pines. “Maybe we ought to try and book some performing chickens,” he said at last.
“If nobody comes to see ’em, we can eat ’em.”
The old Hungarian would have laughed if he hadn’t been so hungry. There was an old superstition with the circus. If it rained thirty days during a season, you were out of business. Hell, thought the big man with worried eyes, that ain’t merely a superstition. That’s gospel, book one, verse one.
Nobody stood in the rain to see a goat ride a horse, even if it was a pretty goat, and his wasn’t. The dwarf was a disgrace. He had eaten too many fried potatoes, too much fried okra and cornbread – dripping with red-eye gravy – and had grown to five feet tall. He would not fool anybody after a good meal. The big man with the worried eyes even tried to bill him as “The World’s Tallest Dwarf,” but that hadn’t worked out either. Another month, and he would be the world’s skinniest dwarf. No potatoes and okra to fry, and cornbread to sop in the gravy.
His circus needed an elephant. Everybody wants to see the elephant. He could have gotten one, too. Cheap, the way he liked his elephants. But he could not afford to buy, rent, or steal a truck large enough to haul him around. The big man tucked his red checked coat tighter around his shoulders and closed his worried eyes.
He already had one star. He had Herman. But Herman was sick. The big man cursed silently to himself. He had always depended on Herman to draw crowds, even in towns too small to have a crowd, and Herman had never let him down before. But then, you just can’t go on trusting a gorilla forever.
Herman wasn’t particularly friendly, but nobody wanted to see a friendly gorilla. They wanted to stare with wide, fearful eyes into the saggy face of a creature straight from the backside of darkest Africa, and Herman looked as though he still had African mud stuck between his toes, even if he had never been closer to the dark continent than Plum Nelly, Georgia, where, the big man figured, the menacing freak show was on both sides of the cage.
The truck behind him began desperately flashing its lights, honking its horn, and the Hungarian eased to a stop by the side of the narrow country road that led to nowhere and never got there before dawn. The big man opened his worried eyes and watched as his cranky, white-haired assistant ran through the rain toward him.
“It’s Herman,” the man yelled.
“What about him?”
“We ain’t got a show no more.”
There was no use to mourn the gorilla or his streak of bad luck. The big man and the Hungarian slowly dragged the limp gorilla out of his personalized truck and dumped him gently into a red-clay ditch where the bluebonnets and red clover grew.
“You’re not gonna just leave him there?” asked the assistant, his wide eyes as white as his hair.
“There’s too much red tape if we haul a dead gorilla into town,” the big man said softly. “Red tape costs money. We ain’t got no money.”
“It don’t seem right to just leave him out here in the rain.”
“It isn’t. But Herman doesn’t feel the rain anymore.”
The little caravan was mired in the clutches of the Great Depression. Only the clown could have cheered the big man, but the clown had been fired five days ago and had promptly run away with the only daughter of the richest man in Rosetta, Mississippi. For a moment, the big man thought seriously about just burning the circus down, taking his losses and the few insurance dollars he could earn, then walking away while he was still on his feet. But, alas, the matches were wet, and there wasn’t enough gas left in the trucks to soak down the tents.
So he crawled into the cab of his truck, and the little caravan rolled on toward Saratoga. The warm April rains beat down around Herman, who, at last, didn’t mind anymore.
It was late the next afternoon when a young boy, mudding home from school, stumbled across the body in the ditch. The sight of it took his breath away. The thing -–whatever it was or wasn’t – was hunkered down as though it had grown rigid from too many hours in a straight-backed chair. It had long black hair and a beard. Its shoulders were stooped. And it was hard to tell whether the thing – whatever it was or wasn’t – was grinning or grimacing, and its sagging chin was propped up against the knuckles of long, bony fingers.
The boy did what any self-respecting boy would do in 1931. He ran. He didn’t scream until he caught his breath. His father didn’t believe him, not at first anyway. But at last he ambled out of the barn and followed his son down to the red-clay ditch where the red clover and bluebonnets grew. Seeing the thing – whatever it was or wasn’t – made a believer out of him.
“It’s naked,” the man told the farmer down the road. “It’s just lying there without any clothes on. And it’s barefooted.”
“It say anything?”
“Not a word?”
“Is it dead?”
“If it ain’t, it ought to be.”
The East Texas farmers – most of whom had never even been outside the Big Thicket – came by the truckloads on that spring day to view the thing – whatever it was or wasn’t – that had, without warning or invitation, intruded upon their land.
It’s a prehistoric monster, some whispered.
It’s from some world that ain’t ours, believed another.
“It’s the Anti-Christ,” a preacher warned. “Read about the mark of the beast in Revelation, and I’m convinced this is the beast. The end is upon us, and I fear that it’s too late to pray.”
Finally one suggested that Lance Rossier come down and look the thing over. Rossier had long been the sage of the Big Thicket. He had read a lot of fancy books, even when there weren’t any pictures in them, and was a well-known traveler. It was rumored, in fact, that Rossier, at one time, had even gone as far away as New Orleans, though he didn’t brag about it nor confess any sins he might have committed there.
For almost an hour, Rossier studied the beast before him. He knelt beside it. He even dared to touch it. He noticed how rigid the thing was, as though it had spent too many hours in a straight-backed chair. He checked the stooped shoulders, the whiskered and sagging chin propped up on long, bony fingers. He stared at the mouth, trying to decide if the thing was grinning at him, or just grimacing like it had a stomach ache. Rossier stood and stepped back, thrusting his hands back in his pockets.
“You know what it is?” he was asked.
Lance Rossier nodded that he did.
“Then don’t keep us in the dark.”
“Well,” Rossier said softly as he headed on back down the narrow road toward Saratoga, “it ain’t no mystery.”
“It’s a mighty fearful thing.”
“I seen plenty of ’em before.”
“You think our women and children are safe?”
“Could be.” Rossier shrugged, turned around, and glanced at the rigid creature with long, bony fingers and a whiskered, sagging chin one last time and said, “Boy, I believe what we have here is a deep East Texas domino player.”
The farmers argued for awhile, then finally passed around a bottle and a shovel, and they buried the thing – whatever it was or wasn’t. In deep East Texas, that seemed like the proper and Godly thing to do, even for a domino player.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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