You are reading Fiddleblack #18
Our bus route was the longest one to school. It went down unpaved roads shielded by oak and hickory and strayed from the county seat across scorched pastures. In winter mornings, we were picked up in the darkness, a few hours before school began. Some kids fell asleep on the ride until they were jarred awake by the roads, or by crickets scooped up from the floor and tossed down their shirts by the older kids. If you fell asleep like I did some mornings, you risked being left on after everyone was dropped off and not discovered until the driver returned to the bus depot.
The stretch that I tried to stay awake for happened about midway through the ride. That was when the bus rumbled over the bridge, a burnt orange iron relic that took its name, Old Alton, from the road that led to it. The bridge spanned a shallow creek that was murky and sullen and twisted out of sight between the sprawling trees.
In the morning, when the mist rose over the guardrails, cars coming the other way would flash their lights to signal the bus to cross. The wheels would rattle across the boards, but the bridge never seemed to sway beneath us. With all its rust and rotten wood, none of us ever seemed scared of the bridge giving way. What we were most scared of when we crossed were the rumors of who lived beneath it.
The rumors started with the older kids in the back of the bus who told them to scare the kids in the middle rows, who then passed them onto the youngest kids up front. Some of us in the middle ridiculed anyone who was unable to look down at the creek when we crossed it. If one of us pretended to sleep so he didn’t have to look down, another would jab his ribs and say, You’re faking it cause you’re too scared to look.
One of the older boys, who sat closer to us because he was scrawny and unpopular with girls, said you had to cross the bridge at night to see the goatman. He said that’s when his family was driving over the bridge, and he saw the creature run past the headlights. It sounded like a horse galloping, he said.
We laughed at him because he was closer to the middle rows and less imposing. He put his headphones back on and leaned against the window.
The older kids in the back rows would try to scare us sometimes by yelling out that they saw the goatman from the rear window. When we turned to look back, they would laugh at us. The kids up front were terrified, and faced straight ahead. A puddle sometimes gathered beneath their seats and streaked down the aisle. We yelled out the name of whoever wet their pants, and the driver threw a paper towel roll over his shoulder at the guilty one.
The older kids told stories about the goatman, but they were never able to tell us what he looked like, or maybe they didn’t care enough to try. To them, he was a joke they held over us because we were young enough to fall for it. In their stories, he was a white flash in the mist, a creature drenched in mud and lost in the headlights. Even calling him a man seemed strange to us. They couldn’t say whether he walked upright or galloped like a horse. Was it only his hooves that made him different, or did he have horns that curled from his head while the rest of his body resembled a man’s? Or maybe he was homeless and hobbled across the bridge at night cloaked in rags and those who saw him didn’t know what to call him.
Whatever he was, I believed the stories of him attacking cows, or plucking catfish from the water. It didn’t matter that if he were halfgoat, he’d be just as likely to dig through trash bins and graze pastures. He wasn’t much different from that troll in a fairy tale I heard at school who guarded a bridge and devoured those who failed to pay him for passage. He was like the villain in bedtime stories that parents told to keep their kids out of trouble. He’d climb from the water and prey on our houses and punish us for throwing dirt at younger kids on the playground, or swindling them out of their lunch money with bets they couldn’t win. Maybe he would spare those kids in the front row who obeyed the driver, the ones who didn’t flinch when we crossed, as if they knew their virtue had pardoned them.
A girl who had been riding since the school year began sat in front of me. She was a year or two younger and lived in my neighborhood. She was quiet and sat up straight like the other kids in the front row. Most of the other girls her age didn’t trust her because she had just moved there. She did her homework with another girl who lived closer to the bridge in a house off a dirt road. Sometimes the two of them huddled together in their seat, taking turns braiding each other’s hair.
When we crossed the creek and told stories about the goatman, she looked down at the water.
If he catches you, one of us said, he’ll take you into the woods and cook you alive. He’ll slice you to pieces with his fingernails.
One bite and he can take off your whole arm.
He’ll throw all your bones into the creek.
She turned back and said, There’s no one down there. I rode over it with my mom, and I told her how you’re always talking about the goatman. My mom honked the horn and rolled down the windows with the music turned up real high. The new girl had a different accent than the rest of us, and she looked right at me when she spoke.
No one was there, she said. It was just dark.
Maybe the goatman was sleeping, the kid across from me said. Or maybe he took one look at you and decided he wasn’t hungry.
She turned back around, and the bus pulled onto the paved road that led to the highway.
My mom barely ever listened to music in the car, and she’d never turn it up like that and roll down the windows. She listened to tapes where people talked about how believing in God would make you richer and more popular. I wondered if the girl’s mom turned up the music inside their house, and if she opened up the windows while the whole family danced inside. When I skateboarded past her house, it looked quiet with all its blinds shut, but then most houses in my neighborhood looked like that. During the week, they were empty because the parents worked and the kids were at school and during the weekends most kids stayed indoors, or went out to the mall with their parents.
Soon after the girl told the story about her mom taunting the goatman, I went hunting for rabbit with my older brother and dad near the bridge. It was the first time we’d gone hunting together. We parked in front of an old cattle guard and followed my dad into the woods. My brother was visiting us that weekend from the school he was sent to after he kept failing his classes. He came back every few months with scratches on his face from fighting the other kids.
He walked in front with my dad, asking him why he couldn’t hold the gun. My dad kept saying, Help your brother look for rabbits.
I was old enough to know we were too close to the road for there to be any rabbits. My brother liked to keep watch for them though, and a couple of times he called out that he saw one, but it was a tuft of feathers, or a plastic sack tangled in thorns.
It hadn’t rained much that year. The water was so low that you could see whole trees washed up along the banks and beneath the bridge there were piles of branches and rotten tires stuck in the hard ground. My brother took off his shoes and socks and waded out to the middle of the creek. He splashed in the water that came up to his knees.
It’s not cold, he said, and walked slowly over the rocks, closer to the bridge, staring up at it. I don’t know if he had ever heard of the goatman. He rode the bus for just a few years before being sent to the other school.
A car was passing over the bridge while another one waited on the other side. My brother reached under the water and picked up a rock and threw it toward the bridge.
C’mon, get your shoes and socks on, my dad said, and let’s go back this way.
My brother pretended not to hear him and got another rock, throwing it again, this time clanging it against the side of the bridge. After the cars passed, he threw another one, and another, until my dad fired a shot into the air.
The wind slowed down, and my brother turned around and looked up at the sky before he came out of the water. He didn’t want to get out, but he looked frightened by the shot. After he put on his shoes and stuffed his socks in his back pocket, we walked back along the creek. When we cut through the woods, I saw a white tail loping through the brush. My brother was watching it too, but we didn’t say anything.
The next week on the bus I thought maybe the new girl was sick. The other girls in our neighborhood didn’t know what happened to her, and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I saw her house up for sale. She hadn’t told the girl who lived near the bridge that she was moving. Some families had disappeared like that before, mostly because the fathers had to move for their jobs.
We heard the older kids talking about the ambulance. How it was parked in front of the new girl’s house. Someone had seen the new girl and her father in the driveway while the mother was wheeled out under a white sheet.
See, the kid across from me said, that’s what happens when you mess with the goatman.
When we found out how her mother died, we didn’t talk anymore about the goatman getting revenge. We didn’t understand why she’d let the engine run in the garage until all the air was gone. Before the new girl stopped riding, I wanted to tell her that she was right, that her mom was right, there was no reason to be afraid of the goatman. I wanted to tell her that I’d gone beneath the bridge by myself when the creek was dark and yelled out for him to come and get me.
Lee Tyler Williams has been published in Absent, Fiction Southeast, Floodwall, Smoking Glue Gun, SpringGun Press, and Thieves Jargon. A radio piece of his can also be found here on NPR. More of his work can be found at http://leetylerwilliams.