The Caterville Banshee
Always be careful about picking up hitchhikers
“I’ve hauled everything from dead bodies to live chickens, and fuck, do they stink. The chickens, not the stiffs.” Charlie tipped his cap back. “Whatcha wanna know, son?”
Charlie come from Alabama. When he’d had a few, he’d say as he didn’ have no effin’ banjo on his knee. Then he’d talk about how his great-grand-daddy’s momma was brung over from Angola on a slave ship. He’d tell some a’ her stories from home — ghosts, ‘n lions in the tall grass, an’ such.
I didn’ put much stock in no lions, but them ghost stories was corkers — mos’ scare the pants off ya.
Another thing ‘bout Charlie, he called ever’body “son” less’n they was walkin’ with a cane — didn’ matter ta Charlie. Guess he figgered you bin drivin’ long as him, ever’body’s a kid by comparison. I cain’t say as he’s wrong tho. He’s seen a lot, has Charlie.
Oh, an’ less’n they was a woman, a’ course. Then they was either “Missy” or “Missus.”
Funny thing, he sweared like a trouper round us guys. Near ever’ other word outta his mouth were f-this or f-that, an’ he could be wonderful cre-ative with his cussin’. But if a member a’ the fair sex were present— that’s what he called ’em, the fair sex — an’ somebody let one rip, Charlie’d be the first ta slap ya upside the head. Why, I seen him growl at Pastor Perry fer sayin’ “shit” instead a’ “poop” when the church hall toilet backed up at the Ladies Aid So-ciety Straw-berry Tea.
Charlie cocked an eyebrow. He were still waitin’ fer an answer.
Marty McGowan, the “son” in question an’ thirty if he were a day, leaned back in his seat an’ glanced aroun’ “Babe’s” afore answerin’. The diner were fillin’ up fer lunch but there was still a few empty tables. Place weren’t much fer looks — scuffed-up, checkerboard floor, old chrome chairs ‘n tables, worn, red leatherette booths with them baby jukeboxes, an’ a row a’ shiny swivel-stools at the long, low counter like ya’d stepped back inta the ‘fifties.
Use’ ta be “Babe an’ Abe’s Fajita Bar” ’til Abe died a few years back. Babe runs the place now. First thing she done was lose the hand-painted, wooden sign. Got a new one with jus’ one word: “Babe’s” in blue, swirly neon writin’.
Then she lost the fajitas. Turned out Babe’s cook didn’ like ’em, but that woman serves up the bes’ Tex-Mex this side a’ heaven with a pinch a’ bayou thrown in. Enchiladas ta die fer, red beans ‘n rice, jerk chicken, pozole, tacos al carbon, blackened catfish, chili verde… make yer mouth water jus’ readin’ the hand-wrote menu-cards.
Marty fixed his eyes on Charlie’s seamed face. “Anythin’ strange ever happen to ya, Charlie?”
Charlie snorted. “How d’ya think I got this white hair, McGowan? ‘Sides sittin’ here gabbin’ with you ‘n Fred.”
Fred — ‘at’s me. Acshully, I’m Sanford Jeremiah Fredrickson, Jr., but ever’body down ta the loadin’ docks jus’ calls me Fred. Over the years, a few tried callin’ me Sandy, but it never stuck, an’ nobody wants ta ride with no Jeremiah. So, ‘Fred’ it is.
Marty give me a poke. He’s a real good shill. He leaned his elbows on the table an’ his bright gaze slid ‘round the diner, catchin’ ever’body’s eye. “Hows ‘bout when you was haulin’ down south. You know — the ban-shee.”
Charlie sucked back a slug a’ coffee. “McGowan, I tole you it wasn’t no real Irish ban-shee, you dumb-ass.” He set his mug down an’ there’s Babe with a fresh pot. “Sorry, Missus.”
Babe smiled an’ headed fer the nex’ table, but her usual quick-step were more like a stroll. She checked over her shoulder ta see was Charlie startin’ up.
He took sip an’ stared at the ceilin’ by the front door. I looked too, but I didn’ see nuthin’ innerestin’. Charlie cleared his throat an’ combed gnarled fingers thru his grizzled beard. A respec’ful hush settled over the diner. Party a’ three comin’ in jus’ then was shushed an’ set down at the neares’ table real quick-like.
“Well,” says Charlie, “about five, mebbe six year ago, I caught a load outta Wichita fer Tuba City. I took the Fifty-Four ta Tucumcari and then stayed on the I-Forty ’til the turn-off fer Two-Sixty-Four. Pretty country. An’ my cargo weren’t in no big hurry fer delivery.” Charlie looked ‘round the room. “ ’Twas a load a’ folks be’n killed in a bus crash. I was takin’ ’em home.”
A chill run up my spine. A couple a’ the newcomers gasped. Charlie’s dark eyes glinted. “Somethin’ you wanna know, boys, you’re ever haulin’ dead folk. Don’t set their coffins up on end ta make space, ’cause them remains’ll jounce down inta the bottom afore y’ever get where yer goin’. Makes a helluva mess.”
A few people shifted, uncomfortable-like.
“You gotta keep ’em flat, an’ face up. Other’n that they’re no trouble.” Charlie’ lips twitched in a grim smile. “Leastways they don’ complain ‘bout yer drivin’.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Was close on midnight. Me ‘n my cargo a’ stiffs was three mile past the Caterville turnoff when I seen her.” He let that sink in fer a minute.
Caterville’s one a them ghost town’s up in the hills. I druv up there one time. Sad, lonely spot. Nothin’ lef’ but a gravel road goin’ nowheres an’ a dozen, tumbled down grave markers. They’s mos’ly hid by dead grass an’ sage brush. Didn’ stay long. Wasn’ no place you’d wanna be after dark.
Charlie’s voice was real low. “A young woman in a long dress was walkin’ by the road, all alone in the dark, wringin’ her hands. So, I pull over t’ask does she need a ride.” Charlie flapped a hand to wave off Marty’s protest. “I know, I know, first rule a’ drivin’ is no hitchhikers. No matter what. But there was jus’ somethin’ about her.”
Charlie took another mouthful a’ coffee. “She gets in, all bleached an’ pale. Three hunnerd miles, she never looks at me, never says a word. Then, jus’ past Steamboat, a heavy fog come outta nowheres an’ a whispery voice starts chantin’. The girl leans forward like she’s listenin’ ta the whispers. Then, I thought I seen a big dog run ‘cross the road.
First, I think mebbe it’s a skin-walker, a Navajo shape-shiftin’ wizard kinda like a were-wolf, but then I hear coyotes howlin’ and the jingle a’ bells, an’ I realize it’s what the Hopi calls Masauwuu, like one a them Irish ban-shees, an’ it were sure singin’ someone’s death song.
The chantin’ gets louder an’ the clouds a’ mist is boilin’ in so thick I cain’t see the road. I make ta pull over. The girl shakes her head an’ grabs my hand. Her touch is so cold it burns my skin.
So, I throw my rig in low and start down inta Keams Canyon. The fog’s gettin’ thicker n’ thicker ’til it’s a solid white wall. Feels like hours, crawlin’ along in low gear, engine growlin’. My head was near burstin’ with the noise an’ tryna see the road, sweat pourin’ off me. The mist was full a’ faces moanin’ an’ swirlin’ past the win’shield; the coyotes yammerin’, cryin’ out like los’ souls; an’ them bells — jingle, jingle, jingle...
The girl, head to one side, eyes closed, hands on the win’shield like she’s keepin’ the fog out. I dunno. Mebbe she was…
As we come up on Kykotsmovi, the fog starts ta thin. The faces, the coyotes, and them dang bells jus’ fade away. The girl straightens up an’ stares out the side winda. I figger she knows this place so I pull over an’ she steps down. Nothin’ there but a dirt road leadin’ inta the desert an’ a light in the distance.
‘Someone comin’ fer ya?’ I ask.
The girl shakes her head. She says somethin’ real quiet. Sounded like, ‘Askwali — thank you — fer bringin’ my children home.’
An’ then she’s gone — like she were never there.”
Charlie picked up his mug an’ signaled fer a refill. I realized I be’n holdin’ my breath, an’ let it out in a long sigh.
One a’ the regulars gave a little cough. “Y’ever find out who the girl was?”
“Nope. Never asked, neither. Jus’ dropped off that load a’ dead folks in Tuba City an’ headed north. Never be’n back.”
Marty shook his head. “Ain’t cha even a teeny bit curious who she was?”
“Nope. I figger I drove dang near four hunnerd miles with a ghost. Mebbe a relative a’ them stiffs I was haulin’. She was frien’ly enough, I reckon, but who’s ta say she would be second time? I ain’t one ta push my luck.”
Charlie winked at Marty an’ stretched. He looked ‘round for Babe. “Well, I dunno ‘bout you fellers, but I‘m so hungry, I could eat an ol’ shoe.”
A storm a’ offers ta pay fer Charlie’s meal follered the menu over. I hadda smile. Charlie’s tale ‘bout the ban-shee mighta be’n true, or mebbe it’s like them lions, but it were a damn fine story either way. An’ who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Thanks to Jennifer L. Harris (JL Harris) for the great prompt: “Banshee”.