Under the big full moon, midnight colored cows glisten and gather at the fence along the highway. Like they know something’s up. Goldy sees the night cows and says, “Man, that’s weird.”
I know it is.
“What road is this?” asks Goldy.
“I have no idea.” There isn’t a car in sight, but plenty of wandering shadow folk like us.
Goldy picks two stub candles from a box offered by an elderly woman and in return gives her all the coins he has in his pockets. He hands one of the candles to me. There are thirty or forty of us up here. Quiet, waiting.
A few crappy houses, a church. All dark, and on the porches the dim shapes of residents on rockers and chair swings who sometimes show their faces in the light of a candle or a cigarette.
It starts up like fireflies in May—just a few blinks and twinkles. Disposable lighters click-click to set the short white candles alight. The illumination is hardly necessary. This year’s hay moon is generous. Goldy says his mom calls it guru purnima. He’s so Baltimore in the way he thinks and speaks, I sometimes forget he has family in Jaipur.
My favorite story about the Moon Walk is a complete fabrication. It says that Catharine (long i) was founded more than one hundred and fifty years ago by a cult that mixed Christianity with astrology. They called themselves the Ark of the Moon and were comprised of thirteen newlywed couples. These couples were charged to create a new community of devotion in a pure, hard place. Each couple was blessed with children, and depending on what version of the tale you hear, either all the infant boys were too sickly to survive, or no one had any boy babies at all. The point is that the Arkers created an entire generation of girls, which meant that they’d need to bring in fellows from the outside world if their mission was going to survive. Hence the invention of the Moon Walk as a way to entice young men from neighboring villages to check out the young ladies of Catharine.
I light my candle, Goldy lights his. We hear someone whisper, “They’re coming.”
The real story is far less interesting. Moon Walk was actually initiated in the seventies by a group of bored high schoolers who’d outgrown the Girl Scouts. They came up with Moon Walk as a means of terrifying their community, only to discover that their community pretty much liked it. Moon Walk broke up an otherwise boring stretch of brutal summer, and it caught on as an annual event.
At the first hint of feathery soprano voices, we stand on the roadside and turn towards music that bubbles up from a valley in the road. The singing is loose, disorganized, but very pleasant. The girls are performing a Carpenters song, but it ends before we see them. As the first Moon Walk damsel comes into view, the chorus launches into a whispery, sluggish rendition of “The Tide is High.”
The girls of the procession range from ‘tweeners to high school seniors, about thirty in all. As they climb up from the valley they come right down the middle of the road. Each walker is adorned entirely in white and carries a lit candle in front of her eyes. Some of the girls wear crisp new prom sheathes, glittering with sequins. Some wear acetate choir robes. Others have cut head holes in bed sheets belted into Joan of Arc style tunics.
A local salon has donated services to this year’s Walk. The girls are all coiffed like Jeannie C. Riley and made up like Joan Collins. That puffed-up, unmoving hair and cat-eye mascara has a terrifying effect, especially when you notice they’re all barefoot as well. Careful with their candles, the girls stick close together. There is enough candle and moonlight to reveal that the soles of their feet are filthy.
The young ladies pass us, finishing the Blondie song before launching into “The Way of Love,” and the warm air becomes super sweet with the scent of hairspray and drug store perfume. Goldy grins as he watches dirty-footed angels shuffle away, singing pop songs to the moon. Slowly they disappear into another valley in the road, and the spectators’ candles snuff out one by one. Party’s over.
“Where are the girls going?”
“Does anyone ever follow them?”
“I don’t think so. It’s supposed to be all mysterious.”
Not happy with that answer, Goldylingers on the road with his hands in his pockets. The energy of the night is different now, less dreamy, more hurry-up. Soon, almost everyone who doesn’t live in this town has vaporized, and the porch folks transmit an attitude that makes me itch.
“C’mon Goldy. Let’s go.”
We turn our backs to the moon, and there she is, a face from the legendary past: Areta Tolerfundt. But that’s not possible.
We can all see her.
“Areta?” I ask. We’d gone to high school together, but she was raised in Catherine. Before her mother moved her into Black Springs.
“Areta,” Goldy says, as if—
She looks like a cornered raccoon. Areta was twenty-six when she disappeared, and that was four years ago. Somethinged to death by a nameless drifter, we never found out. We didn’t really run with her.
She still has her blue streaked hair and the red jewel stud in her right nostril. But there’s a muddy, possibly bloody, scrape that draws an unbroken line of wreckage from the tulle at her shoulder to the ragged lace of her hem. She’s got one pearly sandal on, but the other foot is bare. Because she sees us seeing her, she ka-dunks backwards a step and a half. But I can smell her, peppermint and mildew like a Goodwill store.
“Hey,” I say, because the obvious has just occurred to me: “She’s not dead.”
Everyone is statue still, so when Areta’s toes tense we all look down at her feet. Ten little white mice hunching their backs. She says—
“Yes I am.” And kicks off that pearly sandal. She books it down the road, disappearing into the same inky nothing that swallowed the moon walkers. She runs as if we’re after her, and in a movie we might be.
A porch creaks. One of the shadow folk moves out for a better look. He’s a big, pink man in jeans and a white v-neck undershirt. I call out, “Can you phone someone?”
He leans on his wood rail. He isn’t going to make any calls. But behind him a void assembles into an entity that seems to emerge from the clapboard siding. This person is undetectable before she starts to move, but then she ducks into the house with the speed of a small animal. Maybe she’ll do something if he won’t.
Goldy stares hard into the screen of his cell phone—no signal, of course. The man on the porch peers into the indiscernible valley. I don’t know why I keep talking to him, but he conveys an air of custodianship, a certain undershirt-wearing, hypertensive authority—
“But that was Areta Tolerfundt.”
He nods. Says, “Get out the road.”
Good advice. The familiar whine of civilization pushes us back. The valley into which Areta fled's aglow. We scramble to the berm before a UPS truck appears, all rattle and reckless speed.
A boy is driving, maybe twelve years old, definitely not a UPS guy. The thump of hip-hop blasts the night apart. The truck is full of kids. The cargo door in the back is flung open; a bunch of girls in there, all in white, cling to the walls and straps meant to secure packages. It’s a Moon Walk party. One of the girls looks like she feels sorry for us, but not too sorry. Her mouth is open, and it looks bloody. But she’s laughing and sort of screaming, too. Screaming in joy, you know?
She looks like Areta, too.
The truck to Hades rocks through town, and soon red tail-lights fade over the hill. The music dissipates but leaves a vibration that clings to the night air. Lights go on in the pink man’s house, and soon his woman has returned. Now there’s light behind her, which is just as confounding as no light at all.
“You call the police?”
The woman coughs at me, short and dry.
I can’t believe this. “But you saw her.”
Goldy says my name, a caution.
Unmoved, the woman lights a cigarette. Tilted down over the flame, her face looks like a burnished skull. She takes a deep first draught then brings her chin up high, as if to coax that inhalation down the back of her throat. Her face catches the moonlight, and all her hollows are revealed. I measure the triumph in her eyes. Her pink man strolls to her side, letting his hand slide along the porch rail as he travels its length. He’s hers. She’s his. I’ve got no business in here.
Yeah, all right. Time to get the hell out of there. I grab Goldy’s sleeve. “Did you see her?”
“Yeah, I saw.”
“She looked—” I can’t finish.
He says, “They all do.” Sounds pissed.
For some reason it has become much darker, and the air has turned. There’s a storm coming with a cold core. Not your regular summer storm. Goldy’s face catches the last bit of moonlight before it’s lost to fast moving clouds. His cheek is wet and his eyes are completely black like animal eyes. He’s breathing strange.
So we leave Areta back on that porch, and we leave Areta in that dark valley. And we let Areta ride into oblivion with those wild ass kids. We’re almost down the hill to the muddy patch behind a barn where we paid two dollars to park. And of course there’s a massive black cow halfway between us and the car. It’s standing sideways, a light absorbing erasure that we might not have noticed except that the damn thing reeks and moans. I panic for a second because I’m thinking, shit, we have to choose to go in front of the cow or behind it. And even then there’s no telling what’s between the cow and the car. Could be another cow. And another. We might never make it back home.
From nowhere and everywhere a genderless, ageless voice commands: “Margo. Shift it.” Cow Margo moves forward, out of our way.
We thank the disembodied farmer before we dive into the car. Under the dome light I observe that Goldy’s khakis are soaked with manure around the cuffs. But worse than that, his face is streaked with perspiration and his hands tremble until he mashes them against his knees for control.
I start speeding back to Black Springs. I want to see the beautiful glare of a McDonald’s or a Family Dollar sign spoiling the nightscape. I want to shop my ass off at the Food Lion, open twenty-four hours. Hell, I might move in. But Areta’s not through with us yet.
The midnight cows have gone in, and without their curious attention I feel sketchy, like we could vanish and there would be no record of our disappearance. I swerve to avoid a flapping bag of garbage in the middle of the highway, but I overcorrect and skid through the road-kill carcass of a deer on the other side.
Recovering from the shock, we see them--two hitchhikers walking on the right side of the road, one of them about fifty yards ahead of the other.
Shit. The headlight catches the first hitchhiker, a woman in a wedding gown, limping along on one pearly slipper, her thumb out for a ride. We zoom on by her and Goldy whimpers, “You gotta be kidding me.” Then we catch up to her partner: a dark haired man clad in worn leather, carrying an over packed duffel slung over his shoulder. He’s fast-walking as if he’s trying to leave his bride behind. He puts his thumb out and keeps his attention on what’s in front of him: nothing. He has the gait of a man who never stops moving, never rests. And he’s grinning at a big private joke; he knows we’ll never slow down.
The Famous Drifter is what he is—permanent. I hate the dark. I hate the night. To hell with celestial majesty and enough of the glorious moon.
Goldy and Areta might have had a close encounter back in the day, but I’m not sure. A lot of people like to say they knew her, but most of them are bull-shitters. Like it’s cool to be someone who knew Areta, cool to be that close to arbitrary violence. And you can lie about the dead all you want.
I sneer when we are well past the both of them. “What’s he got to laugh about? Looks like she’s after him, now.”
Goldy looks carsick as we come up on another glittering black bag of garbage, dumped in the middle of the road. He says, “It’s no good to pick sides.”