The Wye Oak

by Michael Edwards

Excerpt 1

On a night with a ring of ice around the moon, a small horse-drawn wagon made its way across the Mississippi, going east from St. Louis into Illinois.  An old man guided the horse along the bridge, careful to keep as far to the right as possible: even at this hour there were innumerable cars, headed both ways at speeds that made horse and driver alike nervous.  This wasn't the main bridge crossing the great river: precisely for that reason it was chosen, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the traffic.  Horse-drawn vehicles were not only a hindrance to the flow of traffic, they were illegal on main thoroughfares, their drivers subject to a fine and possibly imprisonment.  There were no longer any routes across the Mississippi, at this point, that were not main thoroughfares, interstates, freeways, super highways.  To cross the Mississippi under the full moon was to break the law.

The ripples brought to the surface by the current, or in the wake of riverboats, or from the gathering north wind, shimmered beneath the crystalline moon almost as if it were sunlight.  The old man glanced from time to time between the silver gray crossbeams of the bridge to the river below.  "We'll soon be across," he said.  The horse nodded its head, as if it understood.  "We'll get there before anyone sees us," he added as if to reassure his horse.

The thick bushes on the east bank finally emerged out of a dark blur to assume their given shapes, gaining color, texture, definition with every hoof beat against the pavement.  The lights of East St. Louis up ahead were growing brighter than the moon above; presently it became the moon's turn to appear out of focus as the city lights had earlier.  Not that a skyline like that of its grand sister across the river rose up, only the brightness of street lamps and intersections, which eventually outshone the October moon.

At last the bridge came to an abrupt end in a sharp right turn over the land.  The water, which had seemed from the bridge like a majestic sea carved through a deep canyon, now gurgled barely a stone's throw beyond the railing as the highway followed a shallow inlet before turning again eastward.

The wagon pursued one after another roadway, as if trying each for size, going first left then right then straight ahead until finally setting on a narrow road free of traffic.  For nearly an hour the wagon crept along this tree lined road, where the houses were a hundred feet back and the light was dim enough to once again open the moon's rays.  It came to a clearing, a large open field traversed by a rough-hewn path.

"We'll stop here," the old man said as he directed his horse to the path.  Once safely off the main road, he brought the wagon to a halt.  He got down, unbridled his horse, set some grain for it, then disappeared through the rear door of the truck.

"I won't let 'em get you," he said in a voice muffled by the tiny space within.  Then he laid down beside a basket and fell asleep.

In the morning, he drove another couple hours until, coming to another clearing, he again pulled off, this time onto a paved parking lot on the outskirts of East St. Louis.  This was a run down area, sparsely populated with ramshackle homes and broken concrete slabs.  A feeble looking cafe stood at the far end of the lot.  First the old man disappeared into his wagon; then, emerging half an hour later, made for the cafe.

The cafe was nearly full, all the tables taken and only two seats at the counter....A woman motioned him over to her table.

"Why don't you join us?" she invited him to an empty chair.  He sat down and thanked her, glancing at the man sitting opposite the woman to make sure it was alright with him too.  He acknowledged the inquiry with a nod....

The old man continued eating till his breakfast was done.  "Thank you for sharing your table," he said as he rose.  "I've got a long way to go.  I'm heading west."

"Hold up a second," the man said.  "We're done too, we'll walk out with you. "

The three paid the cashier then left.  Perceiving the old man headed for the odd looking wagon, the woman asked "Is that yours?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How odd.  What kind of work do you do?  Are you a preacher?"

"No, ma'am.  I do odd jobs, a little carpentry, digging ditches, some plumbing - whatever I can get."

"'The World Will End in 2025,'" the man read the sign printed in big blue letters on the side of the wagon.  "That was twenty-five years ago!  Looks like you missed the boat!"

"I've thought about painting over it," the old man explained.  "But it's kinda catchy.  It gets noticed.  People stop and ask me about it; they get to talking; I ask if they need any work done around the house.  It's gotten me lots of jobs."

"But do you believe the world will end?" the woman asked.

"Some day, I guess.  See I bought the wagon from a man I knew back home.  He traveled all around.  Met up with him in St. Joe.  He believed the world was about to end.  The year kept changing though.  It started out saying 'The World Will End in 2000.'  He'd go around warning people about the coming catastrophe: that's all he ever did, just go around warning people.  When 2000 came and went he changed his sign to read '2001.'  Then he changed it again.  And again.  And kept changing it for twenty-five years.  You can see where it's been re-painted if you look close."

"So did he die before he got to see the end of the world?" the man asked.

"No, he just got tired of waiting.  He sold me his wagon and moved to Florida.  I've got to go now.  Got a long trip ahead of me.  I've enjoyed your company."

"Did he sell you the horse too?" the man asked.  "He looks like he's as old as the wagon.

"No, I got him separate."

The couple started to move away when a sound from the wagon stopped them.  "You have a baby in there?" the woman asked.

"Yes, ma'am," the old man answered reluctantly.  "My grandson.  I'm taking him with me."

"What about his parents?"

"They don't want him no more."

"Why did you leave him out here?" the woman asked.  "Aren't you afraid, with all the kidnapping?"

"No, he's alright.  I keep it locked.  He's alright."

"I guess he's safe here," the woman agreed.  "But be careful when you get across."

"Across?"

"To St. Louis.  That's where all the kidnapping's taking place.  Over a hundred babies.  Just disappeared.  Don't leave him unattended for a second."

"St. Louis?" the old man asked in a voice barely audible.  "Across?  St. Louis across?  It can't be.  I just come across, just last night."

"This is East St. Louis - this is Illinois," the woman said.

"You were headed the wrong way, pal," the man observed with a laugh.  "That is if you're headed west."

"To the Sierras.  Where I was born.  I want him to grow up looking up every day at the oldest trees in the world.  Right where Nevada and California meet.  The most beautiful place on earth.  What was I thinking - what was I thinking, to come this way?  I was so scared they'd get to him before I could get gone, I guess I wasn't even noticing which way I was going."  A look on the old man's face said he had revealed too much.

"Who?" the woman asked.  "The kidnappers?  You were afraid of them?"

"Or was it the teachers, and their stuff?" the man asked.  "You wanted to get your kid away before they filled his head full of God-knows what - was that it?"

"I - I've got to be going," was all the old man said.  He readied his horse, climbed into the driver's seat, took hold of the reins and, without another word, set off, in the direction he had come from....

There had been no police cars on any of the roads the old man took.  He was nearing the bridge; he could see the outline its lights sculpted against the darkening western sky.  Just ahead was the sharp left turn leading onto the eastern ramp.  As he maneuvered into the turn he glanced to his left.  A police car sat in the half-hidden cul-de-sac at the apex of the turn.  A horse-drawn wagon cannot outrun a squad car; even so, the old man made his horse speed up....

The corner was rounded.  The solid clop of horse's hooves on firm ground suddenly gave way to the hollow, ghostly clop of those same hooves on suspended matter.  They had reached the bridge.  They were now in violation of the law.  They started across, appearing, disappearing, re-appearing in the cross-current of headlights, one minute silhouetted, the next absorbed into the bridge's red, blue, yellow lights, then highlighted like a prop on a stage.

The old man heard the siren behind him; he could make out the whirling flash of light in the windshields of oncoming cars.  "Old fool," he said to himself.  "Heading east to go west.  Old fool."

He was nearing the halfway point when the police car passed him and abruptly stopped, a couple hundred feet away, blocking his path.

He stopped his horse.  He could hear the river below.  Not the gurgling flow of an inlet.  Not the turbulent rush of a raging current.  He knew the Mississippi, he had lived around it half his life; he had never heard it like this.  It was a sound he had only heard once before, when he was a boy.  He had gone to Nevada; he was on the western shore of Pyramid Lake, where Smoke Creek empties into it; an earthquake hit the region; the shallow waters rose and fell, emitting a wail like something had taken hold and was clawing its way through.

"Put your hands on top of your head and don't move!" the policeman was approaching with his gun drawn when he suddenly lurched forward and fell to the pavement; his gun flew from his hand.  An unearthly scream arose from the pavement where the policeman landed.  Not the scream of a man: the scream of a thing.  The scream of asphalt ripping open.  Following by an even greater scream.  The scream of metal girders being wrenched apart.

The bridge began collapsing around itself.  Rivets flew everywhere.  The old man ran to his wagon.  Girders leaped into the air.  Guy wires coiled and snapped like giant snakes.  The policeman folded into the slivered asphalt, disappearing through an opening.  Cars bounced back and forth like rubber balls.  People were screaming, climbing from their cars, running in front of other cars, driving blindly, wildly through a crumbling roadway, leaping over the sides of the bridge, rolling around, clawing at their faces, grabbing one another, falling to their knees, throwing their hands up.  Rivets pelted those who tried to escape, gouging their eyes out, ripping their scalps off, tearing into their bodes from a hundred points.  Guy wires sliced and severed and mangled anyone coming near the edge.  Girders crashed upon the people, crushed their skulls, tore through them like spears.

Till the bridge was reduced to its barest essentials: steel, mortar and concrete.  Till the bridge was no longer a bridge, no longer a built thing, no longer of this earth.  Till it lost its moorings, its hold on the land.

Then it fell,  Not piecemeal but all at once.  Its lights had gone out, but the lights of cars and the whirl of the police light remained, a hundred searchlights searching for a bridge that was no more.  The river grew closer and closer, the sky farther and farther.  Another ring of ice circled the full moon, which had just appeared as a layer of clouds thinned out.

The old man felt himself falling, saw his horse falling, saw the people's cars searching the horizon for a bridge, saw the cars exploding one by one as they crashed against each other and slammed into the river, saw burning bodies leap from their cars, heard the roar of the explosion, heard the screams of the people, heard the siren hiss to a stop.  Then heard the water, saw it surround everything, felt it surrounding him.  The bridge was sinking, taking everything with it.  The old man pushed his way through the opening behind the seat into the wagon.  Water was drawing the wagon deeper into the churning river.  The horse was gurgling as he drowned.

The old man waded through his wagon to where his grandson was lying in a cradle.  "You can't have him!" he cried to the rising waters.  He grabbed the cradle.  Holding it in his arms, above his head, he made for the rear door.  "You can't have him!  You can have me, you can have my horse, you can have us all - but not him!"  The water was to his chin.  With his feet in front of him, as he sank beneath the water, he kicked the door open.  From beneath the surface he saw the cradle float out the door....