My grandfather was a deeply religious man, but he never went to church. Grandma went every Sunday, in her best clothes and her favorite jewelry, but Grandpa always stayed home. I asked him about this once, when I was younger, before he passed away.
It was a summer afternoon, and we sat together, rocking back and forth slow and lazy on the front porch swing, looking out at the mountains.
I pointed to the little steeple in the distance, the one that belonged to my grandmother’s church, and asked, “Why don’t you ever go?”
Grandpa answered. “This is God’s own country. Why would I want to be stuck in there,” he said, and pointed to the steeple, “with all those other people, when I could be out here,” and he gestured around us, and towards the ridge, “where it’s just the Lord and the land and me?”
And then he told me a story.
I don’t know, to this day, whether this story is true, but he told me, and now I’m telling you. Maybe someday, you’ll tell someone, and they’ll tell someone. Stories have a way of keeping themselves alive, don’t they?
“You know where I grew up?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, that’s where this story happened,” my grandpa said.
My grandfather grew up not far from a crossroads called North Fork, on a lonely strip of Appalachian land the locals called Hell’s Half Acre. He knew that his future was tied to that land, whether he liked it or not. And he didn’t like it.
Walking home from school every day, he’d wonder if it would be the last time he’d make the trip. And then one day, it was. He left school in seventh grade and started work at the coal mine right outside of town. It was that, he told me, or be sold to another family. So he worked, hours and hours in the dark, damp underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, walking home, covered in coal dust and exhausted from head to toe, he’d stare at that fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to really choose any direction at all.
And then one evening, as the sun dipped below the mountains and the holler grew dark and alive with lightning bugs and cricket song, Grandpa met a stranger at the fork.
“Evening,” the man said.
Grandpa nodded and kept walking. In all the years he’d walked this road, he’d never met a stranger on it, and this stranger was certainly strange. Dressed to the nines in July weather, a nice suit, starched and pressed, and dark hair as slick and shiny as a crow’s feathers.
“The name’s Scratch,” the man said.
“Evening, sir,” my grandfather said, and kept walking.
“I’m looking for a young man named Jim,” the man told him.
My grandfather stopped. He was Jim. Jim was his name, and he most definitely didn’t know what this man might want with him. So he answered, “No Jim’s around here, Mr. Scratch.”
“Oh, well, ain’t that a shame,” the stranger said. “Had some good news for Mr. Jim. Sure would have made his day.”
Here was a choice, my grandfather thought, standing stock still, staring at this outsider in church clothes. Confess or keep quiet and start walking. Learn more, or go home and get some sleep.
“Had a deal to make with Jim, I did,” said the man. “Could change his life.”
“All right then, I’m Jim,” my grandfather said.
“I thought you might be,” said the stranger. “Figured there couldn’t be that many teenage boys called Jim in a place like this.”
My grandfather nodded.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jim” said the stranger, and stuck out his hand.
My grandfather shook it, and felt ashamed for the fine coating of black dust his own sweaty hand left behind.
“Like I said, my name’s Scratch, and I’ve got a deal for you, if you’re interested.”
“Don’t know much about deals,” Grandpa answered.
“Well,” the man said, “this one’s easy.”
Grandpa nodded again. Easy sounded good.
“I heard that you were looking to get out of here, maybe do some traveling, and I might be able to help. I’d just need you to do me a favor.”
“What favor?” It didn’t occur to Grandpa at the time that he’d never told a single soul about wanting to leave, and how he hoped to travel.
“Well, I’ve been looking for a woman named Ella, and I think you could help me find her.”
Grandpa raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Ella was the preacher’s wife.
“Do you think you could do that? I need to find her, and if you can help me, I can give you some money and a ticket to New York. You’d just need to get yourself up to Roanoke to catch the train.”
“I know Ella,” Grandpa said.
“Oh, good,” said the stranger. “Can you tell her I’m looking for her? Do that, and meet me here tomorrow. I’ll have that ticket all ready for you.”
Grandpa nodded one more time.
“And one more thing, Jim,” said the man.
“If you take the ticket and the money, there’s a chance I might need your help again. But I bet you’d be okay helping me again, right?” The man smiled then, and that smile, my grandfather said, just looked all kinds of wrong.
Grandpa didn’t nod this time. He just stared at the man and his too-white teeth and his not-right smile.
“I thought so,” said the man. “I’ll be waiting for you here tomorrow. Have a good night, Mr. Jim.”
So dismissed, my grandfather walked away, replaying every bit of their conversation in his head.
“Grandpa,” I asked, “did you go back? Was he there?”
“Of course not,” my grandfather answered. “I went home and thought about it and it didn’t take me too long to figure out just who that man was.”
“What do you think he wanted with the preacher’s wife?”
“Nothing good,” my grandfather said. “There’s only one person in the world who uses the name Scratch, and he’s not a person at all.”
“Wasn’t he there waiting for you?”
“No, he wasn’t,” said Grandpa. “I’d made up my mind that night that I wasn’t gonna help him, and I reckon he knew. The devil has ways of getting into your head.”
“Did you ever see him again?”
“No, and good thing. But you keep your ears open and you’ll hear stories about Old Scratch. He’s always out there, trying to make deals and collect souls.”
“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said.
“He doesn’t much care whether you believe or not,” Grandpa answered, with a tone of finality. And then he went quiet, and we went back to swinging in silence, looking out on the hill country.
“Is he the reason you don’t go to church?”
“Nah,” Grandpa said. “But every time I see a man in a suit, he’s who I think about.”
I wonder, sometimes, if my grandfather really thought he met the devil, or if it was just a story for a lazy Saturday afternoon. He’s been gone a long time, so I’ll never know. But I do sometimes hear stories about a man named Scratch, and I figure, if he’s real at all, he’s still out there. Grandpa was a good man, and he’s gone. But they say evil lives forever, don’t they?
Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:
I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of August.