The Book

by S.E. Reid

“Dammit, Evelyn.”

Monty’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel of the seafoam-green Plymouth station wagon, while his wife sat beside him, her spine stiff. The girls sat in the backseat, afraid to make a sound.

“Don’t you swear at me, Montgomery Henderson,” said Evelyn. “I’m only telling you I can’t find us on the map.”

Sitting atop the open map of the Midwest across her lap was a crisp, new copy of The Negro Motorist Green-Book for 1955, which they had purchased at an Esso station in Greeley three days earlier to replace their old one from the last time they had taken a family road trip. The Book had led them faithfully from Denver to Scottsbluff, through Nebraska to Mount Rushmore, and from Rapid City to Sioux Falls. But this was the longest leg of the trip—South Dakota to Chicago—and somewhere along the line they had taken a wrong turn. The Book was of little help if they didn’t know where they were.

“Where the hell are we?” Monty squinted through his glasses and the windshield at the expanse around them. There was nothing but cornfields and sorghum and gentle hills for miles around, darkening blue skies meeting the horizon in a blaze of gold.

“Iowa,” said Evelyn, drily.

“I know that. We’ve been in Iowa for hours. We’re not even heading east anymore, dammit.”

“We’re lost,” said June, who was twelve, from the backseat. “And you’re not supposed to swear, Daddy.”

Monty sighed and met his daughter’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I know, Junebug. And we’re not lost. We’re in Iowa.”

“Can we call Auntie Lena?” asked Ida, eight, wide-eyed now that the idea of being lost had been introduced.

“We can’t call Auntie without a telephone, sweet girl.” Evelyn smiled over her shoulder. “But it’s a good thought. Once we find a place to stop, we’ll call her and let her know we’ll be late.”

This seemed to quell Ida’s immediate concerns, but June said, quietly, “It’s getting real dark, Daddy.”

Monty said nothing.

Evelyn pointed out the window as they passed a sign, then held up the map. “There, I think I found us. That little road we just passed, that’s right here. If I’m right, the nearest town is called Burlington, a mile or two south.”

“How far from there to Chicago?”

Evelyn turned to look at her husband. “We’re not making it to Chicago tonight. We’re not even going to try.”

“We’re so close, Evelyn. If we drive a few more hours, we should be able to get there.”

“Monty,” Evelyn sighed. “We’re not going to drive around in the dark.”

Monty fell silent again.

Evelyn continued, switching from the map to the Green-Book, “The Book has one listing for a tourist house in Burlington. I’ve got the address right here. Maybe it’s even got a view of the river. Wouldn’t that be nice, girls? We could wake up and see the Mississippi right out the window.”

June and Ida nodded, their eyes on their father.

Monty gripped the steering wheel even tighter.

“What do you think?” Evelyn said.

Monty felt the eyes of his family upon him like a weight, and his shoulders slumped. “How much farther?”

Evelyn smiled. The girls visibly relaxed.


The Plymouth rumbled into the north side of Burlington just as night settled completely over the plains to the west. Following the map and the address in the Book, Monty skirted the town and drove upwards steeply, following a private drive through a grove of dense woods. The Hendersons were silent until the trees cleared, and an old painted sign cheered them: ROOM & BOARD, with an arrow pointing up the hill. A bright glimmer of light pierced the trees, like the top of a lighthouse.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered.

Ida asked, “What’s a room and board?”

“It’s a room with no carpets in it, just wooden floors,” June explained.

“Is that true, Mama?”

Evelyn smiled. “It’s as good an explanation as any, I guess.”

At the top of the hill the Plymouth’s headlights swept an arc around a cleared meadow in the middle of a broad circle of trees, illuminating a pair of whitewashed clapboard buildings. The larger building was a barn, surrounded by a fenced and overgrown paddock. The other was a stately yet crumbling three-story farmhouse with a generous wraparound porch, a garden full of climbing roses, hydrangeas, and chrysanthemums spreading out from it like a skirt.

Monty parked the car on the grass and turned off the Plymouth, and they were plunged into country darkness with only the steady glow of a kerosene lamp in the farmhouse’s front room; the bright glimmer of light that Monty had noticed on their way up the hill was nowhere to be seen.

“Can’t see a thing. Evelyn, hand me the flashlight out of the glovebox. You and the girls stay in the car. I’m going to check in, make sure it’s good.”

The night air was heavy with summer as Monty got out of the car and clicked on the flashlight, looking up at the old place. The front door was open, and a closed screen door kept the fretting moths and mosquitoes out.

He climbed the porch steps and knocked on the frame of the screen, then waited. The night was full of crickets and frogs singing in the field, and here and there a firefly flickered in the shrubbery.

Something scuttled in the rosebush at the side of the house and Monty startled, swinging the flashlight beam, but it revealed nothing but quivering branches.

Damn cat, he thought.

This close to the door Monty could smell the most delicious fragrance wafting through the air; it was the scent of the garden roses mingled with fresh baked biscuits and what smelled like something frying.

But there was no movement inside the house. No creak of a floorboard, no flicker of a shadow. All was silence and stillness.

Evelyn’s face was next to the window as Monty approached the car.

“No good?” she asked.

He scratched the back of his neck, uneasily. “Must not be home,” he said. “There’s a lamp lit and the smell of cooking, though.”

Evelyn wordlessly got out of the car and made her own way up the porch, Monty following along behind. She knocked on the screen door, calling out, “Hello? Anyone home?”

“Maybe we should go,” Monty said. “I’m sure there’s another spot in town that your book says is fine.”

“Hello?” Evelyn called out, louder. “Is anyone home?”

“Ev, please,” Monty said. “Let’s find another spot.”

“There aren’t any other spots. Besides, we’re not going to drive around a strange town in the dark with our girls in the backseat.” Evelyn’s voice was firm. “This place is in the Book. So this is the place we’re staying. They must just be out.”

“Well, I’m not standing here on the porch waiting,” Monty said. “I’m going back to the car. Come on.”

Monty headed back to the Plymouth and got in.

“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Ida asked.

“It’s all right sweetheart,” he replied. “Just another bump in the road. I hope your auntie appreciates us driving all the way out to see her.”

Unlikely, he thought, grimly.

“What’s Mama doing?” June asked.

Monty turned in time to see his wife open the screen door and peer into the dimly lit house, looking from side to side. He rolled down his window so fast his hand cramped.

“Evelyn Henderson, what the hell are you doing?”

But Evelyn did not reply. She stepped into the house. The screen door slammed shut behind her.

Monty said, “Wait here, girls.”

“I’m scared, Daddy,” said Ida.

“It’s okay, sugar. Nothing to worry about. I’m gonna go get your mama and we’ll get going.” Monty shut the car door harder than he meant to and vaulted up the porch steps.

By the time he had convinced himself to go in, Evelyn was already in the dining room. The gigantic farmhouse table was set for four people. Another kerosene lamp was lit in the middle of the table, flame turned high, and the smell of cooking was stronger than ever.

“Evelyn, get in the car!” Monty hissed. “This is a stranger’s house. Do you want to get us arrested? Or killed?”

“I don’t think that will be an issue.” She held up a piece of folded paper. “This was sitting on the table.”

“That isn’t for us, honey,” Monty said. “They must be expecting visitors.”

But Evelyn shook her head and read the note aloud, holding it close to the circle of lamplight. The shadows danced on the walls around them.

Welcome, guests. This is a place for any weary traveler who needs refuge. There’s supper in the kitchen and fresh linens on the beds. Your hosts wish that they could join you, but they are required elsewhere. Please make yourselves at home.

Monty stared as Evelyn handed him the note. It was written in a looping, skeletal script on thick, old-fashioned paper.

“I had a feeling,” Evelyn said, meaningfully. “I just had a feeling, standing out there on the porch. Like this is a good place, built and run by good people.”

“Ev,” Monty said, gently, “I don’t mean to question your hunches. But this has mistake written all over it. What if these folks come home and find us eating their food and sleeping in their beds and call the police on us? Does your book say anything about the law in Burlington? Does it?”

Evelyn was quiet.

“I didn’t think so. Why take chances when we have the girls to think of?”

“The girls will be safer in a home than driving around in the dark. Besides, do you smell that?”

Monty did. It had been making his mouth water ever since he had first stood on the porch.

“We’ve got plenty of money,” Evelyn said. “And it’s too late to go anywhere else. I say we sit down to eat a little meal—not too much—and sleep here, just until daylight. We’ll leave cash to repay them for their trouble.”

Monty rubbed his temples, looking around the old house. It was entirely populated with antiques and furnished with worn-down shelves and chairs and tables. It was like stepping into the past. It gave him the willies.

“I’ll go get the girls,” Evelyn said. “You go see what’s in the kitchen.”

Monty’s sense of unease deepened in the kitchen. There was no icebox and no light switch. He slid the flashlight around the small space, skin crawling, though he could scarcely put his finger on why. There was an old woodstove, with an iron pot sitting on it, and a tray of biscuits covered with a clean cloth, smelling like they had just been taken out of the oven. Next to the tray of biscuits sat a jar of homemade raspberry jam and a crock of golden butter. But something was missing.

He uncovered the biscuits. They were still warm. He took the lid off the pot and the scent of fried catfish rose up to meet him. His mouth watered.

Evelyn came in. “The girls are sitting at the table,” she said. “What do we have in here?”

Monty showed her the food. She clapped her hands together in rapture.

“It’s been ages since I’ve had catfish. Smell that! Reminds me of when I was Ida’s age.”

Monty nodded numbly. “The food is still warm.”

“Thank God,” Evelyn said, picking up the biscuits and tucking the jar of jam under her arm. “Grab that butter crock.”

The dishes. Monty looked around the kitchen. There were no dirtied dishes anywhere. No pans full of frying oil, no mixing bowls, not a crusty spoon or soiled knife or pile of plates to be seen.

“Evelyn, when do you suppose these people left? Right when we arrived? Why aren’t there any dirty dishes?”

“I don’t know. Bring the catfish in, too, will you? The girls are half-starved.”

Monty paused, but only for a moment. Then he sighed, tucked the flashlight under his arm, and followed his wife into the dining room, carrying the heavy iron pot. The girls looked up as the scent wafted in with him.

“Mmm, that smells so good.” June closed her eyes. “What’s that?”

“That,” Evelyn said, setting down the biscuits with a flourish, “is fried catfish you’re smelling, honey. One of the best smells God ever made.”

Ida wrinkled her nose. “What’s a catfish?”

“It’s a fish with whiskers,” June said.

Ida looked horrified.

“It’s nothing to do with cats really, sugar,” Monty said, returning from his second trip to the kitchen with the butter crock and a butter knife. “It’s just their name.”

“Probably fresh-caught, too.” Evelyn passed around the biscuits and dished out the catfish onto their four plates. “Nothing frozen here. This is real cooking.”

When their plates were full, they all sat down, pushed in their chairs, and unfolded the blue cloth napkins onto their laps. Evelyn and the girls held out their hands to one another, and Evelyn said grace.

“Dear Lord,” she prayed, “we thank you for bringing us safely to this good place. We thank you for your providence with this delicious food, and we pray for safe travels to Chicago tomorrow morning. Please be with us through the night, and bless our hosts, whoever they are. Amen.”

“Amen,” chorused the girls.

Monty said nothing.

“Daddy, what’s that?” June pointed out the window behind Monty’s head.

The family turned in time to see a set of long ears and two beady eyes shiver and vanish into the rose bushes outside the window.

Evelyn laughed. “What a fright! Must have been a jackrabbit. Curious little thing.”

Monty smiled grimly, his hand shaking as he picked up the fork. “I heard something in the bushes earlier. I thought it was a cat.”

“Why’s it called a jackrabbit?” Ida asked.

“Because all boy bunnies are named Jack,” June said.

“Is that true, Mama?”

Evelyn smiled. “I don’t think so, sugar. But next time you see a jackrabbit you ask him, okay?”

Ida glanced over her daddy’s shoulder out the window, hoping to catch another glimpse of the jackrabbit.

The Hendersons ate in silence as the house settled around them.


There were no rooms big enough to fit all four of them, so they picked two bedrooms beside each other. Monty wanted to keep them all together and as close as possible.

June and Ida picked a room with a wrought iron bedstead and faded wallpaper covered with forget-me-nots. There was a Bible sitting on the bedside table next to an old kerosene lamp made of amber glass, and a rocking chair beside the bed. Despite the room’s antique appearance, the linens were all clean and fresh, as if the bed had only been made hours before.

“When we get home, can we buy sheets like this?” Ida asked, sitting on the bed while Evelyn unpacked the girls’ pajamas. “These are the softest sheets I’ve ever felt.”

“We can sure look,” Evelyn said.

She tucked the girls into their bed while Monty lingered in the doorway. June picked up the Bible on the bedside table and opened the creaking front cover.

“Be careful with that, Junebug,” said Monty.

“I’m just looking at the names.”

“What names?” Ida asked.

“It’s a family Bible,” June replied. “They used to write their names and birthdays in the front. Grandma still does it with her Bible.”

June read some of the names and birthdays aloud. The last name written said Pauline – August 18, 1824.

“She was born over a hundred years ago,” June said. “She’d be… one hundred and thirty-one years old, now.”

“One hundred and thirty.” Evelyn fluffed the girls’ pillows. “It’s July. She wouldn’t have had her birthday yet.”

“Still old. Imagine the wrinkles,” Ida said. “She’d be more wrinkles than skin.”

Monty smiled grimly. “That’s a bit rude, sugar.”

“It’s true, though.” Ida snuggled down into the sheets.

Monty came forward and kissed each of his daughters on the forehead.

Evelyn said, “Time for prayers.”

“Goodnight, girls,” said Monty.

“Goodnight, Daddy,” they replied.

Monty felt the eyes of his wife follow him as he left the little bedroom with the forget-me-not wallpaper. Moments later, the gentle murmuring sound of bedtime prayers followed him into the room next door.

Monty lit the lamp on the bedside table and set the flashlight beside it, then sat on the bed, fully dressed, looking up at a framed photograph on the wall of a large riverboat, a classic design, the photo faded and brown. There was a man in uniform, dwarfed by the boat, standing on the dock. A simple wooden cross hung beside the frame.

Evelyn entered minutes later.

“The girls all right?” Monty asked.

“Of course,” said Evelyn. “All tucked in. They were beat.”

Monty nodded, looked back at the photograph and the cross.

“You going to get ready for bed?” Evelyn asked, starting to unbutton her dress.

“I’m going to sleep in my clothes,” Monty said.

Evelyn sighed. “I don’t understand why you’re so nervous. Nothing bad is going to happen, honey. This is a good place. I can feel it. And the Book confirmed it, too. It’s never steered us wrong before.”

“I hear you.” He turned around on the bed and worried at the knot of his tie.

“You know,” Evelyn said, quietly, looking out the window, “one of these days the girls are going to start asking why you don’t pray anymore.”

Monty pulled off his tie and started unlacing his shoes. “I know it.”

“And they aren’t going to accept that their daddy thinks God isn’t listening to him.”

“That’s because they’re kids. God is different for kids. They think if they behave, He gives out hugs and milkshakes.”

Evelyn glanced at him. “I don’t know that God ever gave me a milkshake, even when I was a child.”

“Must have been a little sinner, then.” Monty smiled. Evelyn did not.

“I want the girls to pray,” Evelyn said. “I don’t like them seeing your example and wondering.”

“Ev, why are you acting like this? You’ve never hounded me about it before.”

Evelyn slid the dress off and reached for her nightgown out of her suitcase. “When the girls were babies, they couldn’t tell the difference. But they’re getting older, and I can barely keep up with their questions. Pretty soon they’re going to ask, and you’ll have to answer. So, what is it, Monty? Why don’t you talk to God?”

“There isn’t a need to.”

“No? Montgomery, we need a book to tell us which towns we can eat in without getting bothered and sleep safely in after dark. You don’t see a need for God?”

“The Book is more useful than God is, anyway.”

Evelyn frowned. “That’s blasphemy.”

“Hell if it is. I’m not telling you that you can’t pray, or the girls can’t pray. When you’ve done what I’ve done and seen what I’ve seen, then you can tell me whether I should be praying or not.”

Evelyn pursed her lips and met her husband’s stare with cold fury. She put on her nightgown, unpinned her hair in the dusty mirror, and then lay down on the bed with her back to him, sighing deeply.

A tense silence settled over the room until Monty couldn’t stand it.

“Thanks for finding us a safe place to sleep,” he said.

“It was in the Book,” she murmured, without turning over.

“I’m not going to pretend it isn’t a little creepy.” He looked up at the old photograph, and the cross, and the peeling wallpaper. “Especially not knowing who our hosts are, or where they are.”

“Well, I think it’s charming.” She glanced over her shoulder, then settled back into the pillow. “A real old antique. It’s got kind of a cozy, familiar feel. Like the sort of place you hope you’ll end up, but never quite do.”

It wasn’t entirely peace, but it was better than hostile silence.

“Goodnight, honey,” said Monty.

Evelyn kept her back to him, but her spine relaxed a fraction.

Monty extinguished the lamp and fell asleep clutching the flashlight.


It was still dark when Monty was awakened only an hour into his dreamless sleep by a silhouette in the doorway and the shuffling of small feet.

“Daddy?” came Ida’s voice.

Monty sat up and put on his glasses. He was still in his shirt and trousers. Evelyn stirred beside him.

“What is it, sugar?” he whispered, fumbling for the flashlight which had slipped from his grasp. He checked his watch in its beam. Midnight.

“I heard a sound outside,” Ida said.

Monty sighed and slid out of bed, slipping on his shoes, his legs shaking. Evelyn murmured, “Is everything okay?”

“I’ll take care of it.” He led Ida back to her room. June was sitting up on her side of the bed, eyes wide in the gloom.

“There’s something outside,” June said.

“It was probably an owl.” Monty tucked Ida back into bed.

June said, “Shh, listen!”

The three of them went silent. Sure enough, there was a faint, rhythmic sound.

Monty pushed aside the curtain and peered through the window, which looked out to the barn. There was a lantern glowing in the hayloft, and at first that was all Monty saw, but soon he noticed something else. Shadows, moving around behind the light of the lantern.

Trick of the light, he thought.

But the sound was more obvious now. It was almost musical. The window had been painted shut; Monty couldn’t open it.

“Girls, you go get into bed with your mama,” he said. “Gentle now. Don’t wake her. I’ll be right back.”

The girls did as they were told, and Monty made his way through the dark house to the porch, clutching the flashlight.

As soon as he opened the front door the sound became clear. It was music, coming from within the barn. A low fiddle tune, quick and melancholy, and a banjo. Monty thought he heard stomping feet and clapping hands. The lantern in the hayloft was bright, brighter than it should have been, and there was a light now in the lower level of the barn, visible through gaps in the big barn door.

Was that lit before?

Monty crossed the lawn through the garden, careful not to step on the flowers, down the path to the barn. The music played on, though Monty thought it sounded strange, like it was playing through a radio underwater. It had a metallic quality, something muffled and faded. As he neared the barn it seemed to get quieter, not louder, as though it were drawing away from him.

There were shadows moving around within; he could see them, dark shapes cutting through the golden stripes of light.

Monty tiptoed around to the smaller side door, reasoning that he couldn’t open the barn door all by himself. Clutching the flashlight in one hand like a weapon he threw open the side door to look inside.

He was met with an exhalation of cold, musty air as the light was doused and the music ceased. The barn was silent, dark, and empty. Ancient horse tack jangled in the sudden breeze and the old hay bales sagged. Up in the hayloft window, the bright lantern too had been extinguished.

Monty stood in the doorway for a long moment, shocked into stillness, trying to reason it out. He had never had a dream so vivid, and he was not prone to flights of imagination so real that they drew him out of bed in the middle of the night. Besides, the girls had heard it first.

He left the safety of the doorway and entered the barn, sweeping the flashlight to illuminate the shadows. Dust danced in the meager light, but there was no other movement. The old barn held its breath.

“Hello?” Monty called out, less sure than he might be. He had a memory, a brief flicker, of bombed-out barns in the Ardennes during the war. There were always dark corners that could be hiding German snipers, and they often did. At least he had a platoon behind him and a rifle over his shoulder, back then. He suddenly felt very naked in his shirt and trousers, holding nothing but a flashlight.

A cold tremor passed through him, starting with his feet and passing up through his crown.

Monty left the barn, closing the side door behind him, and walked carefully back to the house. As he rounded the garden he stopped. A jackrabbit crouched in the path, ears alert, eyes aglow from his flashlight, watching him with an uncharacteristic courage. Monty and the creature regarded each other.

Then, without warning, the rabbit hopped off the path and darted into the long grass along the bluff, vanishing into the night, as if it had a story to tell and simply couldn’t wait to tell it.

“Evening,” came a voice from the porch.

Monty froze, and looked up to see a woman sitting in a dark wicker chair, balancing a candlestick on her lap. The candle flame illuminated her face; she was the oldest white woman he had ever seen. She had a long thick braid of white hair down her back and an old-fashioned woolen shawl around her thin shoulders, which Monty thought was odd, as the night was summer-warm and heady. Her face, while wrinkled and frail, was not unkind, though her eyes were dark and hooded in the flickering candlelight.

“Evening,” Monty replied, approaching slowly.

“You like my house?”

Relief flooded through him. He turned off the flashlight. “Oh, this is your house, ma’am?”

She dipped her head.

Monty said, “Me and my family, we saw your address in the Book and we thought… well, I hope we’re not imposing on your hospitality.”

The old woman waved away his concern with a pale hand. “That’s what the house is for. That’s what it’s always been for. Did you like the catfish and the biscuits?”

“Delicious.” As Monty climbed the porch steps, he noticed that one of the old woman’s eyes behaved differently than the other. He knew a glass eye when he saw one.

Where was she hiding while we ate and slept?

“It’s an old recipe,” the old woman said. “Sit a spell with me.”

Monty sat down on a chair opposite the door. The night air felt good on his face.

“Have you had many guests?” he asked, an attempt at small talk.

“Oh yes.” She looked at him very seriously. “All kinds. Runaways and stowaways, Jonahs and Ezekiels, Ruths and Tamars. We’ve had at least one Moses. Soldiers, too, both sides. Some of ’em are still here.” She glanced over her shoulder at the house. “Some folks find it hard to leave.”

“It sure is a pretty spot.” Monty looked out from the porch. The town of Burlington to the south was quiet, unlit, ghostly. The river was moonlit and glittering, steamboats passing like shadows.

The old woman’s words—Soldiers, both sides—had unsettled him, though he hardly knew why. Also, Some of ’em are still here had a ring of fearful prophecy about it. He shivered. “How long have you been living here?”

“Long enough.” She looked at him, her glass eye not quite in line with her real one. “Seen all sorts of things come and go, but some things always stay the same. You wanna know how I lost my eye?”

The question took Monty by surprise. He swallowed. “Well, ma’am, it wouldn’t be polite for me to ask—

“You didn’t ask, I’m offering.” She tapped her right cheek below the false eye. “Saw God out of the corner of this one. Just one glimpse is all it took. The glory of it seared the eye, killed it dead. I had to get a false one because the empty socket scared the local kids. You ever see God?”

“No, ma’am.” She’s crazy. We’re staying in a crazy woman’s house. “Can’t say as I have.”

“You’d know if you had. You’d need more than eyeglasses.” She huffed a laugh.

The rose bushes rustled. The sound of little paws fluttered through the dark.

“You’ve got a mess of rabbits around,” Monty said, hoping to change the subject.

“Oh, yeah. They’re all over. They’re here for the dead. You know what a psychopomp is?”

The word stirred a memory of Monty’s time at college, the one real benefit the G.I. Bill had afforded him after he had come marching home. While the white veterans got their houses in the suburbs and their pick of universities, law degrees and internships, Monty had consoled himself with a liberal arts degree that would not have been possible before and a teaching job in Denver public schools. At least he got summers off.

Psychopomp brought vague recollections of a required Greek mythology elective and long hours studying Edith Hamilton, but it was the last thing he expected to hear sitting on a farmhouse porch in Iowa.

“I’ve heard the word before,” he said. “I don’t recall its meaning, though.”

“It’s a guide that brings the souls of the dead to Heaven. Intercedes for ’em. Lets God know who’s worthy and who ain’t,” the old woman said. “A rabbit is a creature that always knows they have a job to do. They are awful close to the dead.”

Macabre implications fluttered into Monty’s mind, but he did not dare voice them. “Is that so?”

“That’s so. The rabbits are good company. Especially if you’re worried whether or not you’re getting into Heaven.”

She gave him a strange look. He did not meet her gaze.

“You worried about that?” she asked.

He felt cold. “No, ma’am.”

“You were a soldier, weren’t you?”

“How can you tell?”

“You meet enough soldiers and you can smell the ghosts on ’em, see the weight of what they’ve done, or what they think they’ve done. It’s something behind the eyes.”

Monty’s hands were shaking as he smoothed a wrinkle in his trousers. “I fought in the Battle of the Bulge, back in Forty-Four. France.”

“I’ve met soldiers. Lots. Both sides. Every side. Why are you worried about getting into Heaven?”

“I told you I wasn’t.” The blood rose in Monty’s cheeks. He didn’t want to get angry with her, but he could feel his heart racing. “Anyhow, I should be in bed. My wife will be worrying. I’ll wish you goodnight, now.”

“Your wife is sleeping,” she said, the glass eye glinting eerily. “And her worries run deeper than you sitting on a porch with an old woman. You scared because you killed folk in France?”

Monty stared down at his knees. “I did what I had to do.”

“Yes, sir, you did. Soldiers do. So, what are you afraid of?”

“God doesn’t want me.” Monty scuffed the toe of his shoe against the head of a nail sticking up from the porch.

“No? And why is that?”

He sighed, surprised at the way his breath quavered. “I was raised by good, loving, God-fearing folk. And they taught me that killing is evil, that only peacemakers go to Heaven. But I wanted to serve my country and protect my family, so when the call came, I joined up anyway. I knew it was wrong to kill, but I took up my weapon with the rest. I chose damnation a long time ago, putting on that uniform. I accept it.”

The old woman sat silently, watching the river.

Monty sighed. “I’m not worried about getting into Heaven, because I know I’m not. My wife prays, and my girls pray, and my folks pray, and you see God, and that’s all well and fine and proper. But God doesn’t want me.”

A wind off the river swept through the garden like faint applause in a distant theater.

“Well,” said the old woman, “I admire your certainty. It’s rare. Most folks never quite get to it. I’ve met all kinds, but you’re the first to know for certain where he’s going.”

Monty ran a hand over his face, surprised to find that he was sweating, though it could very well have been tears.

“I’ll tell you what,” the old woman said, slowly. “All that about the rabbits, it ain’t true. Rabbits don’t intercede for nobody. They’re strange creatures, sure, and they’ve got a way about them, and they’re altogether too comfortable with the dead for their own good, hanging about graveyards and ruins the way they do. But there’s only one voice God listens to, and it don’t come from no rabbit.”

Monty looked at her, and in the candlelight her face was soft. “God isn’t listening for my voice.”

“Yours isn’t the voice I’m talking about, either.” She smiled gently. “I happen to know for a fact that men who choose duty over peace ain’t the strangest, most worrying, most scandalous, most incredible thing wandering the heavenly avenues right now in holy glory. Not by a long shot. The One interceding has a pretty odd standard for letting folks in. He’s got a strange idea of what’s worthy and what ain’t.”

A scrap of a hymn floated through Monty’s memory, something his mother used to sing when she was cooking. It was the same song that he had heard coming from the barn, that otherworldly melody, though he hadn’t recognized it until now. It had sounded different then. Now it filled him with a warmth he could not explain, and a hollow sadness that was overwhelming.

The old woman shrugged. “Hard to be certain of where you’re going when you ain’t the one deciding.”

Monty found himself without words. He remembered the way it felt, putting on that uniform for the first time. The way Evelyn had cried tears of pride and grief all mingled together. She had written prayers into her letters, every single one.

The first time he had killed a man had started out like any other day in the infantry. Every time before then he had fired his weapon into a cloud of unknowing. But this time was different; this time he saw the bullet connect with a human being, and a young German soldier had crumpled in a blaze of red. Monty had known, in that one horrible instant, that he would never see the face of God. He had been so certain.

His eyes itched, his hands trembled.

The old woman was looking at him.

“It’s no wonder the rabbits have their eye on you,” she said. “You’ve got an awful lot of ghosts for such a young man. Here in this house we know a thing or two about ghosts.”


“What was it, Daddy?”

Ida and her mother were asleep in each other’s arms, but June sat up in bed, her eyes wide in the darkness as her father came in.

“Nothing to worry about, sugar,” Monty whispered. He had left the old woman rocking away on the porch, watching the river, after sitting beside her in silence for what seemed like an eternity. He wondered if she ever went to bed. He wondered about a lot of things.

“We looked out the window and watched for you,” June said. “When you went to sit on the porch, Mama thought you were talking to yourself, and she worried. But I heard her, Daddy.”

Monty felt a chill run down his spine. “Your mama didn’t hear her?”

“No, Daddy. But I did. The old lady talking about rabbits. I heard you talking to her.”

Monty met his daughter’s eyes in the dark, then he left the bedroom, walked down the stairs, peered out the front window. The porch was empty, the dark wicker rocking chair and the old woman with the candle were gone. The fireflies sported in the treeline, and the wind teased the hydrangeas. Somewhere in the distance a dog-fox screamed, a lonely sound.

Monty climbed the stairs to the bedroom once more. He gave June a comforting smile and slipped into the bed beside the sleeping Evelyn and Ida, holding out his arms for his elder daughter to nestle in beside him. They all lay together in the impractically small bed, and soon June was fast asleep with her mother and sister.

Only Monty stayed awake the whole night through, staring into the darkness, listening to the gentle breathing of his wife and daughters. The old hymn still played around and around in his mind, like a record on a turntable. The fiddle and the banjo were mournful and yet hopeful, and there were hands clapping, and voices lifted. He couldn’t remember the words, and yet the song felt near, like hearing the echo of your own voice in a deep valley.


The next morning, the Hendersons rose early to find hot oatmeal already on the woodstove for them, with raisins, and honey fresh from the hive. There were also coffee for the grown-ups and cold milk for the girls.

“Breakfast, too,” Evelyn said in wonder as the family drew up to the dining room table. “When do you suppose they had time to make this? I didn’t hear anyone come in.”

Monty and June glanced at each other but said nothing.

Evelyn and the girls held out their hands to one another and bowed their heads, and Evelyn prayed.

“Dear Lord,” she said, “we thank you for a safe night’s rest and for a bountiful breakfast. We pray for our travels to Chicago today, for Auntie Lena, and for you to go with us as we leave this place. Amen.”

“Amen,” chorused the girls.

“Amen,” Monty murmured.

After breakfast they piled into the Plymouth, gave the old house a grateful wave, and headed into town. It was going to be a hot day; the sky was blue as a starched shirt and the river shimmered as they drove down the bluff toward the center of Burlington.

Monty rested one hand on the steering wheel, thoughtful. Evelyn held the Book open on her lap, and the map of the Midwest underneath. Ida chattered contentedly in the backseat, pointing at shopfronts and steamboats on the river as they drove through town. June stared out the window.

Evelyn flipped through the Book, absently. When she landed on the listings for Iowa her eyes flickered over the page, her face shifting slowly.

“Monty,” Evelyn said, low. “It’s not in the Book, anymore.”

“What’s that, honey?”

“The house.” Evelyn’s voice had gone cold, fearful. “It was there last night, I swear.”

Monty glanced over at her finger on the page. There were no listings for boarding houses or hotels in Burlington. The address they had followed was not there.

“What does it mean?” Evelyn asked, but it wasn’t clear who she was asking. And Monty had no answer for her. Her question hung in the air, suspended.

As they drove out of town, following the route that led north and east toward Chicago, the Hendersons sat quietly in the seafoam-green Plymouth station wagon while the Iowa landscape blurred past, gold and green, brown and blue. The river followed its own counsel in the opposite direction, rushing toward its own ends, thick with its own secrets.

“Auntie Lena will be glad to see us,” Ida offered into the silence.

Evelyn smiled. Monty said, “You’re right, sugar. We’ll see her very soon. We’re on the right road, now.”

June, who had been quiet and thoughtful since leaving the house on the hill, asked over the roar of the engine and the rush of wind against the windows, “Daddy, why would the Book take us to that house?”

Monty looked in the rearview mirror at his firstborn daughter’s face, so serious and so deep, just like her mother’s. Then he glanced at Evelyn. She stared straight out at the highway and the other cars whipping past, humming a snippet of song, something unfamiliar, in her sweet voice.

“I don’t know, Junebug,” he said, giving his daughter a reassuring smile in the mirror. “But the Book has never steered us wrong before.”

S.E. Reid enjoys telling and hearing stories about nature, history, ghosts, and God. Her nonfiction work previously appeared in Plants Are Magic magazine in the UK; Mysterion is her first fiction publication. She currently resides in the Pacific Northwest and you can find her poetry, short prose, and photography on Instagram, @thewildrootparables.

The Negro Motorist Green-Book was first published in 1936 by postal worker Victor H. Green in an effort to give African American commuters and motorists the ability to travel safely in a country still plagued by segregation and “sundown towns”. The guide grew and expanded for thirty years until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished Jim Crow laws. A reproduction 1940 edition and an electronic copy of the 1955 edition were both used as the basis and research for this story.

“The Book” by S.E. Reid. Copyright © 2019 by S.E. Reid.

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