The Underworld Railroad
You know you and the ex boyfriend were a complete mismatch when his bitter bitch email mentions something about "with our eye on Heaven and Jesus", and you're pretty sure the two of you never even discussed religion. Yeah. "You told me you were a Christian," he said. Um, no.
I save the email in Troy's folder and rename the folder something like "Troy--WTF?!" It doesn't make me feel any better, but at least it doesn't have the line of <3s anymore. What was I thinking?
Do I know why my mom decided to move back to Alabama after my granddad died? No. Do I care? No. She goes on and on about keeping this land that's always been in our family and not disappointing Granddad. "Mom," I say, over and over, "Granddad's dead. You can't disappoint him."
"Shows what you know," she says. We communicate in glares for the rest of breakfast.
I read somewhere that it's supposed to be harder for people to move from a city into a small town than the other way round. That is definitely true. The kids at Bonner County High School call me Yankee and even the teachers sneer at me when I say I'm against the war. Troy used to tease me because I refused to go to target practice with him. We've been here two years and all I want is to go back to Boston, back to my old middle school even though I'm fifteen and too old to go there. It would have been different I know, if I'd stayed. But it would be different than here. Different than Mom's thin-lipped silences and and the stares of high school kids who've never seen a nose piercing before.
I could write a book about all the things I hate about Alabama. Gravel roads. That weird smell around lots of cows. Motor oil. Dirt. Soot. Catfish. OK, I kind of like catfish. But I hate fishing. Granddad used to take me fishing, when I was little. He was so proud that he had his own lake where you could catch fish. I'd tell my friends in Boston, my grandfather has his own lake, with fish, and they'd be like, what, in Alabama? And I'd say, yeah, and then they're all, well, that's Alabama. If your grandpa had his own lake in Massachusetts, or New Hampshire, that'd be something. It's a man-made lake. It was made like back in the thirties or something. I cannot imagine why anybody would make a lake. What is the point?
Anyway, Mom makes me walk around the lake with her every day. The lake doesn't have a name. I'm like, how can it be an actual lake if it doesn't have a name? Then Mom got all parenty on me and said, well, why don't we make one up? So I'm like, what's the Cherokee for 'smells like fish and dog shit?'
School will be unbearable on Monday. Troy won't talk to me. None of Troy's friends will talk to me. It will be just like the first day I walked into the classroom. I ask Mom, what about homeschooling? Then she says, don't be ridiculous, Betsy. We're not disciplined enough for that, are we? We. She means me. Don't call me Betsy, I say. Really, don't.
There is a place on the edge of the lake where some beavers are building a dam. Mom pays a guy to break it up with a hatchet every couple of weeks, and then the beavers are out there again, building a new one. There's a name for that: the eternal present. The beavers aren't like, whoa, they've broken our dam like fourteen times since January; maybe we ought to pack up and move since it's obvious they don't want us here. They're like. Ung. You break our dam. We build again. We start with logs and build up to branches.....Hey! You break our dam! Stupid animals. I tried to talk to her about ecosystems once, like the beavers are damming the lake and then the environment around the lake will change and it'll all become a swamp and lots of frogs will live there, but she's not interested. She wants the lake. She never wanted the lake before.
In the middle of the lake, there is a tiny little island, just big enough to pitch a tent on, with cool rocks and some pine trees. I don't know why they put it there: it's not big enough to put a house on. Why would you want a stupidly small island in the middle of a stupid man-made lake.
So we're walking around the lake, and Mom says, hey, let's row over to the island and see how it looks. She unhooks the rowboat from the levee hook. It'll be fun, she says. Oh, great. I'm like, that boat's so old it'll probably spring a leak and we'll drown, and nobody will know we're gone for like weeks, and the beavers will use our clothes for dam packing.
Mom points out to the island, which is like three boat lengths away from the edge of the lake. You really think we couldn't swim that if the boat sank? I'm like, these are my good jeans. And she's like, well, you shouldn't have worn your good jeans for a walk around the lake. So, yeah. I get in the rowboat, with my Mom, which is not the coolest thing I've ever done on a Sunday afternoon, and she takes an oar and I take an oar, and we row over to the lake. It's just the same as it was when I was a kid: some rocks, some trees, not big enough to build a house on.
And then my Mom does something completely whacked. She takes a hammer, like a little silver hammer, out of her jacket pocket, and she knocks on one of the rocks. Tap, tap, tap, three times. Great. I'm in the middle of nowhere, on an island in the middle of a stupid man-made lake that smells like fish and dog shit, with no escape route except for a stupid little wooden rowboat that might spring a leak at any moment, and my mother has gone stark raving mad.
Except then the air around the rock starts to shimmer, and an old guy who looks like my grandfather sort of fades in. I'm like, shit.
Mom tells me to watch my language, and I STFU.
Leafling, says the guy who looks just like my grandfather, is this your daughter you've brought to me?
I'm like, shit, but under my breath.
Yes, father, says my mother.
I'm like, WTF.
My shimmery grandfather turns to me. He says, you've grown into a beautiful big girl, Betsy-boo. I can't even think fast enough to tell him not to call me that. I just stare.
I stare some more.
Honey, say hello to your grandfather. Mom is starting to sound a little nervous, or maybe a little peeved, now.
I'm like, you're dead.
And he's like, in one sense only. I no longer wander the earth.
Dude, I was at your funeral.
My grandfather laughs. He's like, I see you've kept the secret, Leafling.
My mom is like, we keep our promises.
I'm thinking now would be a good time to make a break for it, strand the crazy on the island with dead granddad, see how she likes swimming in February. Have you been keeping him locked up down here? I can't think of anything else to say.
They both laugh.
What? I'm freaking out.
Betsy-boo, Betsy-boo, says my grandfather. I can't keep this up much longer. Why don't you both come down and have a cup of tea?
I'm like, down? Like in the grave down? It's weird enough to be offered tea by your dead grandfather, but I associate down and dead people with like graves and crypts and vampires and shit.
Granddad laughs. It's a funny, wheezy laugh. And then he's like, just come over here and give my hand a squeeze, and I'll explain it all to you.
My mom's nodding at me, like this is all whoopity normal. So I'm like, yeah, whatever; if I die it means I won't have to face school tomorrow with bonus fresh breakup angst and gossiping in the halls. It's embarrassing, but I wait for her to grab Granddad's hand before I do it.
And then there's a cold feeling, and a dizzy feeling, and I kid you not, we're standing in Granddad's kitchen. I mean, obviously it's not Granddad's kitchen really, because that's the kitchen in Granddad's house, our house, but it's a kitchen and my Granddad is in there, so it's Granddad's kitchen. Like that makes any sense. Just go with me.
It's like a hobbit house, like in Lord of the Rings, only not for short people, because Granddad is a tall guy and he's not bumping his head on the ceiling. It's just got a plain table and a countertop and a sink and all the stuff you usually find in a kitchen. So I'm like, Granddad, do you eat stuff, and he says yeah, fish mostly, and I just laugh at the idea of my dead Granddad still fishing his lake.
Granddad gets us some tea, and it's not ice cold but it's OK, and then we all sit down at the table, like this is perfectly normal. At this point I wonder if I ought to pinch myself because that's how they do it on TV when they're pretty sure they're having a dream but really they've been yanked down to Buffyland, but my Mom is looking at me so I don't do it.
Then Granddad says, it's time we talked, Betsy-boo, and I'm like, don't call me that, and he says OK, so what do I call you, and I give Mom the look and she laughs behind her hand, and so what. So I say, I don't know. Beth. Or Liz. Or Lizzie, but not Betsy. He nods and tries each one out. What do your friends call you, he wants to know. I'm like, I don't have any friends, and he looks at my Mom and my Mom shakes her head, and then he's like, OK, it's Beth because then it has the same first letter as Betsy-boo and I can remember that. Whatever. He goes, so it's time we talked, Beth, and I'm all, but there's this whole dead thing, and then he pats me on the hand and I feel cold and dizzy again. I'm like, don't do that, so he takes his hand away and clears his throat and gets all serious.
We're not like everybody else, Beth, he says, and I'm thinking, no shit, but out loud I'm like, OK, so how are we different from everybody else? Please don't tell me I have to go out and kill vampires. He looks all surprised, and he's like, no, I want you to stay away from damn vampires missy, you understand me? Whoa.
My mom says, Betsy, honey, and then she stops and says, Beth, honey, you'll be sixteen tomorrow. And thanks, Mom, for reminding me that I'll be sixteen tomorrow, on Monday, the first day of school after I dump Troy and don't have any friends and everybody is going to stare at me and wonder who I think I am, dumping Troy Gilliland, because he's on the baseball team and that's all I had going for me at Bonner, dating a baseball player. Fuck them. So I don't hear what she says next, and she asks me if I'm listening, and I'm all yeah, so she says, then answer my question, and I can't do it.
Listen to me, Beth. I'm like, Yeah, OK, I'm listening. Sorry. She says, you'll be sixteen tomorrow, and that's an important birthday, and we have to tell you some things. You mean, like my dead Granddad who lives in a hobbit hole under the lake and, Jesus, is that a cat? I'm like, Granddad, a cat lives down here with you, and he's all, of course a cat lives down here with me and my Mom gets that pissed off look she gets when she has to say something three times, so I STFU. So she says, do you remember studying about the underground railroad in history, back during slave times, and I'm like yeah, so then she says, so we're kind of like that.
Everything's quiet for a minute. I can't think of anything to say. Granddad goes, look, you know those fairy tales I used to read you when you were really little, and I'm like yeah, and then I'm like, you're not telling me that all that stuff is real, and he's like, nope, it's complete BS. But some of those stories go back to real things that happened a long time ago before the worlds separated.
You know that thing that happens in a TV show, when somebody's saying something really important and the lighting changes and the music changes, and everything goes quieter, and everybody leans in to listen to the person who's talking? It was like that, except not with the lights and the music. It just felt important. I just nodded and leaned my chin on my hands and watched Granddad's mouth.
So there is more than one world, Beth, and we, our family and other families like us, are able to pass from one place to other places. I'm like, what kinds of places, and then he's all, well, there are a fair few, but we're really concerned with one of them right now.
OK, I'm listening. I just nod.
There is a problem in Alfheim, he says.
Alfheim? I'm like, What is that?
Granddad's like, Elfland, and I'm like, is that where they make the cookies? And he gets that exasperated look. OK, OK, I say, I'm sorry. Is Elfland like Fairyland?
They're different names for the same place. Granddad really likes explaining things. He says, some people just call it Fairy. With an e. I'm like, how come it has different names, and he's like, because different people named it what they thought it ought to be called. I'm all, OK, I can go with that. How come we're worried about it?
Granddad gives my mother a look, and my mother nods. I'm thinking, great, they're having psychic conversations with one another now. This gets better and better.
And then Granddad's like, Alfheim is collapsing on itself.
Rationale, The Underworld Railway
Experimentation was a top priority in writing this piece. Our class covered character-building through monologue in Moll Flanders, and The Underworld Railroad is exactly that, a monologue given to us as if the protagonist were telling a story. The piece is also written in dialect, as if an American teenager is speaking to us. Like Nalo Hopkinson’s characters in The New Moon’s Arms, Betsy (or Beth, or Liz, or Lizzie) is not concerned with formal English; she just wants to tell us what happened to her on the day before her sixteenth birthday. Betsy is not a linear thinker: her ideas run off track and onto tangents, often before she’s told us what’s happening. When our class covered human conversation through transcribing conversations between strangers, we looked at the way real human conversation jumps around and sometimes doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes, Betsy’s thoughts don’t make any sense. She is a self-involved teenage girl whose thoughts revolve around social situations at school, hating living in Alabama, and her relationship with the boyfriend she recently dumped.
Because Betsy’s internal voice is fast, choppy, and colloquial, we learn a lot about her, her relationship with her mother, and her relationship with the state of Alabama at the very beginning of the piece. We know Betsy’s just broken up with her boyfriend, that Betsy and her now-ex boyfriend were very different from one another, that she has a casual relationship with a mother she does not understand, and that she longs to move away from Alabama and back to her familiar and probably embellished memories of Boston, a city she left two years ago when her grandfather died. More important than Betsy’s history is the speed at which she plows through reporting both information and dialogue: she talks so fast we imagine her breathless and brimming over with opinions. This stylistic choice is meant to convey that Betsy is intelligent and, despite her sarcastic manner, is in fact open to new experiences. This would seem to be a positive trait for Betsy, because it looks as if she is about to have some new experiences.
The Underworld Railroad is placed only loosely in time; it is meant to be set any time between the mid 1990s and the present. For this reason, most references to specific pop culture titles were avoided. The characters are not ever described physically, and this is intentional: as Francine Prose suggests in Reading Like a Writer, when she discusses the powerful effect Heinrich von Kleist’s novella The Marquise of O-- had on a class she once taught.
“Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are -- often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart -- and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys. He has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.” (Prose, 146)
For Betsy, everything that happens on the day before her birthday is a surprise, or she would like us to think that it is. Betsy’s age and the fact that this story is told completely through her eyes and filtered through not only her experiences but also her voice as she tells her own version of events may lead readers to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. We have to trust her, because there’s no way to avoid her voice if we want to read the story.
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. 1722, Gutenberg edition.
Hopkinson, Nalo. The New Moon’s Arms. 2007, Grand Central Publishing.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. 2006, Harper Collins. ePub edition, August, 2006.