An Alive Past



by Bradley Sides

            My friend Trenton and I have been making yearly trips to Mr. Morton’s Historical Museum of Arkansas Folklore since we were six.  This trip, our decade celebration, is the first one without our parents.  We aren’t celebrating too much because my younger brother Nathan is taking their place.  It’s his first time to Morton’s; ironically, he’s six. 
Old Man Morton stands, looking at old pictures of all his past guests.  He recognizes Trenton and I from the moment we step inside the doors.  “Boys.  I was just looking at your picture,” he says, greeting us.  “Brady, are your parents not here?” he asks. 
“No, sir.  I’m driving myself these days,” I say. 
“Where has the time gone?  Brady driving.  This must be the little guy that I’ve heard about before,” Mr. Morton says to Nathan, who stands behind me. 
“It is.  Nathan, say hello to Mr. Morton,” I instruct my brother.
“Hey,” Nathan says, stepping out from my shadow.
“It’s a real shame that your parents aren’t here.  I always like talking with them,” Mr. Morton says.
“Yeah, they said they were too busy to entertain our imaginations today,” I say.
“Imaginations my foot.  They’ll think imaginations,” Mr. Morton says, grumbling to himself.
I laugh and ask Mr. Morton if we can get a tour.  Without hesitation, he agrees.  As always, he claims to have it all in-house:  the Ozark Howler, the Fouke Arkansas Monster, and even the beloved Nessy.  These guys are lies; everybody knows it.  Everybody except Mr. Morton, that is. He walks by each beast, points, and gives a full lecture on everything his memory allows him to still hold.  All of his stories are good, but one attraction is worth the trip alone.   
Seeing the gowrow, even if it is my tenth time of doing so, causes me to stop thinking about anything other than what sits in front of me.  Of all the legends I’ve heard about, this is the one I don’t completely disown.  The room in which the gowrow inhabits is his alone.  It’s as if the other attractions respect his space.  His face is like that of a mammoth, with two large tusks and full, high cheeks.  His hair looks stuck together, the color of dried lava.  I imagine him blowing fire, although I know differently.  His back arches and bony spikes protrude from his spine.  His muscles attempt to penetrate his skin.  His feet are webbed, imitating some type of duck.  His belly causes the biggest distraction with its rotund structure.  I think about all of the life that was taken into and lost inside the gowrow.  
When Mr. Morton tells about the gowrow, he adjusts everything about himself.  He straightens up.  Instead of hovering above his walking stick, he leans on it.  His voice wobbles all the time.  It has since I’ve known the man, but it’s worse when he talks about the gowrow. 
“Boys,” he says.  “This here is the meanest scoundrel ever to come out of this great state.  Why, I heard a tale about this feller eating a whole school of children back in 1896.  Kids, a little younger than you two boys—I imagine—were on a school trip to a little lake in Searcy County.  Y’all know where that is?  Just a couple of counties over.  Well, those young fellows were splashing around, probably throwing a ball around and whomp.  The ground starts rolling.  A sound worse than a hundred hands of jagged nails scratching a chalkboard comes from the water.  Birds fly in all directions.  Trees’ roots giving up and letting their bodies tumble to the ground.  Legend has it that the gowrow rose quicker than a gator latched down its snout and gulped every single one of those boys up.  The teacher couldn’t do a thing but watch.  This beast ate them up and went right back to resting in the cool water’s mud.  Not a piece of any of them was ever found.” 
He continues, “You’ve heard the most recent stories, I guess.  This gowrow right here, they say, still takes lives each year.  He started back about fifteen years ago.” 
Trenton looks at me.  “Yeah, but that’s just nonsense,” I say. 
Trenton looks to Mr. Morton, “Isn’t he locked up?  Well, and dead.” 
“Oh, boys.  Where do I begin with it?  Remember the family missing from Polk County last year?  They found not a trace of them, but neighbors heard an awful sound.  Reports of a rumbling ground were received so after.  There are always sightings.  The year before there was the Smith girls.  Disappeared without a trace, and not a peep since.  Same reports in the area, though.  Before that, Mary Trapp was gone.  Healthy as an ox, but disappeared quicker than a cupcake in front of a fat kid.  Guess what?  Rumbling ground, piercing sound, and downed trees.  Sound familiar?  I have each one of their pictures up here.  They came to see the gowrow.  Maybe they upset him in some way or another.” 
Trenton and I have heard the stories before, but Nathan takes off running toward the lobby, hands-in-air and crying like he’s one of the boys in Mr. Morton’s story.
“Nathan,” I say, going after my brother.  “Nathan, it’s just a story.  Come back here.”
“Just a story?” I hear Mr. Morton say to Trenton.  “He must’ve heard that from his parents.  Y’all feel free to look around all you want.  I’m going out for a while.” 
***
When I finally calm Nathan down, I go back to find Trenton.  He has been staring at the alleged corpse of Arkansas’ once allusive gowrow for more than an hour, now too entranced to turn his back on its rotting tusks.  Instead, he scratches his chin with concentrated precision.  Muttering sounds fall from his lips.  He steps forward, sways, and he steps back and does the same.  When he’s close to the beast, he squats to inspect its underbelly.  Still scratching his chin, he nods. 
            “Okay.  That’ll do,” he says. 
            “Solve your puzzle, Sherlock?” I ask him.
            “I did,” he says.  He smirks at me and says, “Did you solve your little brother’s?” 
            I look back at him, but don’t answer.  “Let’s head back home before it gets dark,” I say. 
            “Hang on, I want a souvenir.  Mom gave me twenty bucks to buy something,” Nathan says.
            “Are you kidding?” Trenton asks him.  “You were so scared of the gowrow that you took off running.  Now, you want something to remember it by?  You have something bad wrong with you, little buddy.”
            “Don’t call me little buddy.  I’m not little,” Nathan says to Trenton.  “I want something, Brady.  Please.”
            “Fine,” I say. 
            When we walk into the souvenir room, we are the only ones there.  It’s not surprising.  The only items for sale are old books.  The covers don’t even look shiny.  The insides are even worse—yellow pages, broken spines, and moldy scents. 
            “I’ll take this one,” Nathan says, grabbing a tome with the gowrow on its cover. 
            Stories of Legend:  True Tales of the Gowrow by Arkansas Residents,” Trenton reads the cover.  He looks to Nathan, “Good reading, I’m sure of it.”
            “You know,” Trenton begins, “My great-grandfather tells a story about his great-great-great-grandfather’s entire farm being destroyed by the gowrow.  The poor guy lost eighty-four pigs and nineteen goats in one night.  All that was left behind was a slice of skin with some clunks of gooey hair.  Then you have my grandmother who insists that her great-great-grandfather was killed by it.”
            “Be quiet, Trenton,” Nathan says.  “You’re just trying to scare me.”
            “Scare you?  You are buying a book about death stories.  Do you want to know something that actually is scary?” Trenton asks Nathan.
            “Yeah,” Nathan says, looking straight up at Trenton.
            “I was watching the gowrow when you were with Brady, and I saw him move,” Trenton says.
            “He did not.  Brady says the gowrow isn’t even real.  It’s make believe,” Nathan answers back.
            “How can he be here if he’s not real?  Think about it,” Trenton says.
            Nathan ignores Trenton but takes the book. 
            “Here,” I say.  “Mr. Morton said he was going out for a while.  Let’s leave the money here.  He’ll get it when he gets back.”     
            I pat Nathan’s shoulder, grab his hand, and turn to walk out of the Folklore Museum and back into the unquestionably genuine Arkansas heat.
***
            Inside the car, we coast along without saying much.  Nathan taps on the half-cracked window in the backseat and hums along to the static overtaking the radio.  Trenton mostly taps, too, but he does so on his phone.  I drive.   
            Passing all the downed trees, I can’t help but think of the gowrow.  I ask myself if it’s possible that the legend is true.  Then, I try to laugh at myself for even considering it.  When I hit a pothole, I think about the rumble.  When big trucks rush by me, I think of the sound they make.  I amplify what I hear and project the noise somewhere differently—to a place that could as easily be my past as it could be my future:  to a lake with my classmates, tossing a football, and giving into something that I cannot prevent. 
            “Brady,” Nathan says, interrupting my thoughts.  “I need to go to the bathroom.”
            “Okay, buddy,” I say.  “I’ll stop at the lake’s rest-stop.  Is that alright?”
            “Sure.  But, Brady, is that where the gowrow killed those kids?” Nathan asks me.
            Trenton turns around to Nathan.  He says, “Like your brother said, the gowrow is not real.  He’s a legend.  Have you ever heard of Paul Bunyan?”
            “Yeah.  The man with the blue ox,” Nathan replies.
            “Paul Bunyan isn’t real.  The gowrow is like him.  Made up.  It’s a story,” Trenton says.
            “Okay,” Nathan says. 
***
            “Can you go in by yourself?” I ask Nathan.
            “Yeah.  I’ll be fine,” he replies
            “I’m going to be walking down by the lake, so just come meet me when you are ready.  Okay?” I say.
            “Okay,” Nathan says.
            Trenton walks down to the water’s edge with me.  With the sun going down, I catch a glimpse of the life in the distance.  The trees that have fallen distort the natural symmetry of the forest.  In the water, kids play.  Some that look about Nathan’s age play tag.  Others, a little older, fling a Frisbee.  The ones around my age mostly sit on floats and play on their phones.  Overhead, low-flying crop dusters provide background noise.  Then, I hear a sharp sound—like the one Mr. Morton described to us.  When it gets close, the ground trembles.  I know that it’s manmade.  The reverberation is too sharp to be anything else.  In this spot, the same place where the gowrow was supposed to have killed so many and taken the life of more than its share of victims, I realize that it never happened.  Terrible things have happened in this world—even close to me—but the gowrow isn’t the cause of them.
            “Brady, Mr. Morton is here,” Nathan says, running back to me with his arm bleeding.
            “Bud, what happened to your arm?  That’s a lot of blood.  Are you alright?” I ask, taking his arm and examining his wound.
            Nathan winces but continues his story, “Mr. Morton’s truck is loud.  I walked in front of it because I saw that he was parked, and when I waived at him, he stepped on the gas and left.  His truck was so loud that it made me fall over.  I fell on the edge of some kind of big ax that flew out of Mr. Morton’s truck.”
            Trenton looks at me, and we run up the bank. 
            “We have to go now,” I say.  I grab my brother and sprint back to the car.  I put Nathan in the backseat, wrap up his arm in an old blanket, and slam the door.  Trenton follows closely behind me, catching on to what I think but don’t say.  He doesn’t say anything.  He puts his phone away and looks ahead.
***
            Pulling into the driveway, I see the first sign of Mr. Morton’s myth:  downed trees.  The light from the lamp beside Dad’s recliner shines onto the darkness of the brick pathway to the front steps.
            “Stay here, Nathan.  I’ll be right back,” I say.
            “What’s wrong?  We are home.  I want to go inside,” he says, leaning up to the front of the car.
            “Hang on a minute, buddy.”  Trenton says to Nathan.  “Let your brother turn on the porch light.  You don’t want to fall again.” 
            Nathan sits back with his arms folded.  “Okay,” he says.
            Walking up the house, I hope that I’m wrong.  When I reach the doorway, I step through.  I don’t hear Mom asking how our trip was.  Dad doesn’t ask if we had enough money.  Instead, I hear nothing.  I walk to my parent’s bedroom.  Again, nothing.  Food sits on the stove.  I hear the dishwasher cycling through its stages.  The basketball game blares in the background.  I walk back outside to get Nathan.
            I open the car door and sit inside.  I breathe, not knowing what else to do.
            “Where are Mom and Dad?  Are they not excited to see me?” Nathan asks.
            “They aren’t here, bud,” I say.
            When I answer Nathan, the neighbor’s outside light turns on.  Ms. Nancy is an old lady.  She’s been old since I was born.  I see her walking toward me, so I go and meet her, not wanting her to have to walk too far in the dark. 
            “Hi, Brady.  Is everything okay over there?  I heard something awful earlier.  It sounded almost like a rumbling explosion.  It might have been an earthquake.  In all my years, I’ve never been in one, but I’ve imagined them.  I think we had one, hun,” she says. 
            “Thank you, Ms. Nancy.  I’m sure everything is fine.  Thank you for checking on us,” I say.
            “Oh, you’re welcome.  Good night, sweetie.”
            “Good night,” I say back.
            When I get back inside the car, I look at Trenton.  He shakes his head and nods toward Nathan, who is crying. 
            “It was the gowrow, wasn’t it?  He’s real and he ate Mom and Dad?” he asks.  He sits with his knees up to his shoulder and shakes, wiping his runny nose with his sleeves.
            Sometimes, legends are better than the truth.  So, I look at him and say, “It looks like it, buddy.  Don’t be scared of the gowrow.  I’ll find him soon enough.”  

 BRADLEY SIDES is a graduate of the M. A. in English program from the University of North Alabama.  He currently teaches junior English in Tennessee.  His work appears in Boston Literary Magazine, Freedom Fiction Journal, and Inwood Indiana.  He resides in Florence, Alabama with his wife.


4 comments:

  1. Good folklore here. We don't see enough of stuff like it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love this. Suspenseful yet calmingly quiet. It stays with you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Haunting and so melancholy. It strikes me as a very thoughtful and personal piece. The story is very strong.

    ReplyDelete

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Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.