Death’s Red Bowler

When Bernadette was very small, she thought she was the only one who could see the Driver.

She’d been six years old when her neighbors had moved their old granny into their house along with a hospice nurse. For a week, Bern came home from school and helped her mama bake a pie or cookies or a casserole that they’d walk over to the Oswalds’ together. Everyone whispered, and the hallway smelled cold. Not like the bright orange feeling Bern used to get when she visited to play with the Oswalds’ old poodle.

The last morning, Bern was slowly tying her shoelaces on the small concrete step just outside her front door while her mama ran around the house after the right purse and her favorite earrings and – oh yes – grabbing a lunch from the freezer. As Bern finished her laces, a dark shape turned up her street: black as fresh asphalt, the carriage was square and windowless, with large silver wheels. The team of four horses pulling it were black, too, except where the sunlight caught them just right and they shimmered purple and blue and pretty, perfect yellow, in slick rainbows like spilled oil.

Bern stood up, clapping her hands together. But her little pink shoes stuck to the concrete as she noticed the man on the high bench, his gloved hands holding the reins loose as he drove. The sun shone hot, but this man wore a coat with tattered hems and a wide-brimmed hat, all of it black. He drew the horses up, and his carriage stopped in front of the Oswalds’ house.

And nothing.

The horses shook their flanks, sighing and settling. The man on the bench leaned back and tipped his hat down so the rim shadowed his face. Bern waved, and one of the horses turned its long nose to her, stretching out its neck. One of her feet lifted free, and just as Bern began to run, her mama snatched her up, saying, “Come on baby, time for school!” and tucked her up into their car. Mama kept her face averted from the carriage, never glancing that way or pausing even as she backed out of the driveway. But Bern pressed her little hand to the window and stared until they turned right at the stop-sign and the carriage vanished behind the houses.

***

What impressed her most about the carriage wasn’t that nobody seemed to want to talk about it, or that she saw it herself almost once a month, or how easily it slipped through traffic, never quite impossibly, but often only avoiding collisions in a way that had Bern wincing and on edge.

It was that the driver always wore a different hat.

Top-hats and berets, fedoras and caps, they were all as black as the first. The day she saw him waiting outside a Walgreens in a pointed felt hat with a long black feather, Bern ran home and pulled out the H volume of her grandfather’s old bound encyclopedia and set to learning everything she could about hats.

By the time Bern was fourteen, she had her own collection. As if to make up for the driver’s monochrome tastes, she chose only the most colorful and bright. Red bowlers and polka-dotted bonnets, nine baseball caps, cowboy hats and a purple sombrero, wool flat caps, checkered Gatsbys, and an army of feathered and beaded and embroidered fascinators. They painted a rainbow across her bedroom walls.

She was fifteen when the carriage pulled up outside her Aunt French’s house, where she’d hunkered down on the sofa with algebra homework while Mama and Frenchie made dough for Frenchie’s famous homemade ravioli. The carriage didn’t make a sound, but Bern was good at just knowing the precise moment to look up and catch the sight.

Bern opened the front door and stood in the frame. She adjusted the yellow-and-green tartan Tam O’Shanter cap more firmly on her head. The carriage and four horses held steady three houses down, and the driver had on a bicorn hat a la Napoleon. It made his nose rather more distinguished, she thought, and the shoulders of his coat broader. Bern was surprised to find herself liking the driver’s looks very much.

She was gathering her breath to call out, when for the first time that she’d ever seen, the driver climbed off his bench, looping the reins about the rail, and strode up the sidewalk and directly to the yellow front door of Aunt Frenchie’s neighbor three houses down. His boots knocked on the concrete like anyone’s boots would, and when he stood on the narrow porch it was with a very living slouch. Just like the guys at school who slunk out of the cafeteria to smoke against the chain link fence.

The door opened, though the driver had done nothing but stand, and a man Bern’s uncle’s age stepped out. He wore a suit and tie, his dark hair was slicked back, and there was a smile on his face.

But the moment the driver touched him, the man dropped his briefcase. It hit the ground and split open. The man cried out in dismay and tugged away from the driver. He reached down to gather his papers.

Bern’s breath popped in and out of her, faster and faster, as she watched the driver and the man struggle. The driver’s face remained pinched and calm, as he held one hand over the man’s back, not quite touching again. But the man – he fell to his knees and scrambled for the sheets of paper as they fluttered in a wind that Bern couldn’t feel.

“Bernie!” Her mama took her shoulder and turned her around. “Don’t watch that!”

The hiss in her mama’s voice made Bern whirl around. “You see him, too? You see it?”

Mama’s bright brown eyes widened on Bern’s, then lowered. Her fingers dug into Bern’s shoulder and Bern dropped her mouth open as she saw the color darkening her mama’s cheeks. “Come on, come in,” Mama said, more matter-of-fact. “We need you to spoon out the filling.” As if that were all the reason she’d dragged Bern away from the door.

By the time the raviolis were filled and pinched, the carriage and driver – and Frenchie’s neighbor three doors down – were gone.

***

It was only fleeting glances of him that Bern got for a year – until the day she sat against the Ford County High School sign, her back pressed against the rough limestone bricks, hiding from Jared Oakridge who wanted to ask her to Junior Prom, and Sarah Rouse who’d been trying to nail Bern down about bringing in her collection of toques and Florentine hats for the Drama Club’s production of Hello, Dolly! since Monday.

Her head ached a little from the metal headband that pressed just behind her ears. A tiny fuchsia top hat and black silk ribbons was glued to the top left, and Bern briefly wished she could just take it off. But she’d fought hard to prove to the school board that this was a headband and not a hat, and therefore not in violation of school policy. Returning to class without it would be like conceding.

Behind her and the solid limestone sign, a fifth period P.E. class was causing a ruckus with badminton on the front green, and Bern could only hope nobody hit a stray birdie her way. In front of her was the street, with cars zipping past every few seconds, and anybody who glanced at her should assume she was part of P.E.  Bern tilted her head back and asked herself for the thirtieth time why she was avoiding Jared when she was fairly certain there was no reason to say no to him. He’d stuck a note through the slit in her locker this morning with nothing but a anime-style sketch of the two of them holding hands under a disco ball. In the drawing, she was a lot prettier, albeit with giant, glistening eyes. She wore a fluffy dress like she’d never really put on, her curls were sculpted in perfect spirals instead of this flimsy mess she usually resigned herself to, and of course, she wasn’t much of a hand-holder. But it was undoubtedly supposed to be her, because on the girl’s head was one of those medieval, conical princess hats, complete with diaphanous veil.

She smiled a little, imagining such a hat, made of pale blue silk of course, and it would have to have rhinestones sewed into the veil like stars. Maybe she should just go wait outside Jared’s English class and get it over with.

Just then, the carriage appeared. The horses galloped through the slow traffic, their hooves clashing silver sparks, making Bern’s heart gasp out of rhythm. She stood as the driver pulled his horses up at the red light. Leaving her backpack, Bern dashed away from school, down the sidewalk, until she reached the intersection. The driver slouched on his bench, relaxed except for his hands as they held out the reins.

Today, instead of a tricorn or top hat, instead of any old-fashioned cap to compliment his tattered great coat, the driver wore a plain black baseball cap, turned backward on his head like a thug.

Bern laughed.

And the driver looked at her, clearly startled. The cap left his face open to the sun, and all the crags she’d assumed before melted away until all she saw was a plain face, young and unremarkable surrounded by so much black.

The laughter fell away from her, but Bern didn’t let that keep her from smiling.

One horse stomped its hoof, and another sighed loudly. Bern kept smiling, her mind whirring fast, trying to find something to say. “I’ve never seen you in a bowler, you know,” she finally managed. “I think it might suit you.”

The driver did not move at all, not to blink or to tilt his head. The traffic light turned green, but the carriage remained, and none of the cars behind it even tried to drive around. Slowly, he smiled back at her. “Maybe you should bring me one,” he said, in a voice like falling autumn leaves.

Though Bern could feel an abyss swallowing her heart, she said, “I only have a red one.”

Inclining his head, and widening his smile, the driver reached one hand to point at her. “So long as it’s larger than that one, please.”

Bern’s hands flew up to the tiny fascinator, which she knew looks strange and ridiculous crowning her otherwise every-day jeans and tee-shirt combo. And the carriage driver laughed.

Just then a horn honked, and Bern glanced in annoyance at the SUV, only to see the old gentleman behind that wheel averting his eyes with his hand, to be sure of not accidentally seeing.

Bern looked back to the driver immediately, lifting her chin because she was not afraid. And the driver’s smile shifted as he touched a finger to the baseball cap in salute. Bern never wanted to look away.

But another horn screeched and metal shrieked and crashed, so loud it echoed back more than two blocks. The first two horses reared, jerking the entire length of the reins. The driver’s face flashed panic, and without glancing back, he snapped his team into action. The carriage leapt ahead, diving for the accident father up the street.

As she turned to walk back to school, half the P.E. class had run up behind her at the horrible sound. Two girls clutched hands, and another crossed herself, saying she prayed everyone was alright.

Bern pushed straight through the crowd of them, knowing that wasn’t true.

***

She agreed to go to Junior Prom with Jared Oakridge because she walked right up to him and asked if he’d ever seen the black carriage, and Jared Oakridge tightened his jaw, but said yes.

The carriage and hats weren’t the only things they talked about, though Bern always managed to draw the conversation back around to those things eventually. To her theories about where the driver came from and where he went, to what power he had that could carry people away in the mysterious darkness inside the carriage. Jared drew her face in a dozen different expressions as she talked, and made her a book with her portrait at the bottom, and two dozen sheets of tracing paper, each with one of her hats painted in glorious color, so that she could put whichever hat onto her portrait that she wished, and change it anytime. It was the best present she’d ever been given.

At the dance, when Jared pulled her into a corner and lifted the pink mesh that spilled off her hat so that he could see her eyes unobstructed, he asked, “Are you thinking about him, Bernie, or me?”

She said, “you,” in a whisper, because it was true. Jared had his hand on her waist, and his thumb made tiny circles against her dress that burned straight through the material and into her belly. He kissed her, and when she grabbed his face as if it could somehow contain the way she shook, the slick feeling of her skin melting away, her hat knocked back and fell to the floor.

***

Over the summer, Bern went out with Jared every day he had off from his job at a lawn service. On a Tuesday, they saw a movie together, and she took off her slouched fedora because it was only polite. While they watched, a man had a heart attack just outside the ticket booth, so that when they headed for the car, fingerss entwined, the ambulance was quietly pulling away.

Bern glanced around quickly, her hat still in her free hand. And saw nothing.

***

It was a day late in September, and she climbed onto her bed to begin pulling hats off the wall to make room for a beautiful painting Jared had done in his oils class over summer break. When her fingers skimmed along the felt brim of her bright red bowler, her breath sucked in and she froze.

How long since she’d seen the driver? Five months? Six?

Furiously, Bern tore all the hats from her bedroom walls. She gathered them in her arms and carried them through her house and to the front yard, leaving a trail of rainbow hats like crumbs behind her. Five trips it took until they were spread in chaotic patterns across the front lawn. She stood in the center and waited.

After several minutes, she picked up a violet wedding hat with two long white feathers and set it onto her head. She waited again.

Next she tried a blue torque with crepe daisies gathered in the back.

Then a turquoise skullcap exploding with sequins

A cowboy hat that shaded her eyes from the sun.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And finally, Bern picked up a gray pinstriped fedora with a pink silk brim ribbon. The darkest she had. It settled onto her head just as Jared pulled up to the sidewalk in his dad’s old Caprice Classic, which was like docking a yacht in a creek. “What are you doing, Bernie?” he asked, picking his way around flatcaps and porkpies with a bemused smile and his long hands in his pockets.

She gazed at him quietly, looking him up and down. When he stepped over the purple sombrero, she stepped back, because she knew if he took her hand she’d stop waiting.

“Bernie?”

“Waiting,” she said, lowering her eyes to the red bowler at her feet.

Jared frowned, but it didn’t matter. The black square carriage came with its silver wheels, with the team of four horses shimmering like oil. Jared’s face cracked open and he jumped toward her, but Bernie shook her head. He shifted course and ran to the front door, tugging it open and calling for Bernie’s mama.

The carriage pulled up. The driver stood on the bench, and a wind Bernie couldn’t feel blew his hair because today there was no hat holding it down.

She picked up the red bowler and stepped forward, but her mama came out. “Bernadette, no, it isn’t for you – it isn’t for you, baby!”

Because it was her mama, Bern turned half around. “It’s alright, Mama, I see him.”

Mama held her flour-covered hands out to her sides. Now there was a wind that all of them could feel, and it flapped the bottom of Mama’s apron. “I won’t let him take you, not in the belly of that thing. Not before me.”

Behind Mama, Jared put his hands behind his head, fingers woven together, and his mouth pulled open with fear. He shook his head.

“But Mama,” Bern said, “he isn’t taking me anywhere.” And she ran the final few yards, reaching her hand out for the driver’s hand. He bent over and grabbed her wrist, swinging her up onto the bench. His hand was cold, but right there, just inches away from Bern’s own, his smile was as warm as the sun. She lifted up the red bowler, and set it firmly onto his head like a crown.

“God,” her mama breathed from the yard, and Bern glanced back, at her mama and her boyfriend standing in the middle of all those crazy hats.

“Just keep seeing,” she told them. “Just keep looking at what we do, and I’ll always come home.”

The driver offered Bern the black leather reins, and she took them in one hand.

“Bernie!” called Jared, “why are you going?”

The cold wind blew at her fedora, but not at the hats on the lawn or at her mama’s apron. Bern stood, one hand holding the hat tight to her head, the other gripped tight to the rein. She called back, “Because death isn’t the only adventure!” before snapping the reins. The driver put his arm around her waist as the carriage leapt forward.

***

This post brought to you buy Tessa’s current obsession with witnessing and faith. (I’m always obsessed with hats.)

image by ZoeShuttleworth via flickr CC.

32 thoughts on “Death’s Red Bowler

  1. So awesome! I would totally go with the driver myself, especially if he was wearing such fetching hats! *applause, applause!* I love this idea of death, a sort of Death it would be hard to fear, as he promises some fun adventures. Being someone who actually does drive carriages on occasion, I find this concept of Death quite pleasing, really. 🙂

    My only detracting comment comes from being a Real Life Carriage Driver (albeit without the neat hats or the whole taking people’s lives thing), and that is that you don’t have reins when you drive a carriage, they call them lines. Though I suppose if it’s from Bern’s POV, she would understand them as reins. Though ’tis reins with no ‘g’ in sight, if you’re using the term.

    Seriously, I want to know more about their adventures! So awesome!

    • Oh EFF ME! LOL I’ve been riding horses since I was 12 years old. I know how to spell reins! GAWD. Thanks.

      Also, I had no idea they were lines not reins. But I’ll go with your theory that I did it on purpose through Bern’s point of view. Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt. Hee hee.

      I’m glad you managed to enjoy it despite. Now I have to decide if I’m going to go through and fix the typos….

      • The terminology might also be regional, I’m a California driver after all. Besides, most people who ride don’t know driving lines are called lines, so it’s all good. 😀 Again I cannot say how enough how much I enjoyed this story as a flavor of something different, for realsies 🙂

  2. Wow. I loved this. What a wonderful story! I felt so proud of Bern. For not being afraid, and for choosing to start something new. And for just being colorful and brave. This is one of my favorites.

  3. YUMYUMYUM 🙂 This is sooo delicious. I love hats. We can be hatpeople together! But really, this was so great, Tessa. FTW stories about death 🙂

  4. Tessa, you constantly bring me characters that I can’t help but want more of. I think I might kill for more of the Driver – pun very much intended.

    I hope one day I can make beautiful characters like yours!

  5. “This post brought to you buy Tessa’s current obsession with witnessing and faith. (I’m always obsessed with hats.)”

    Catching up on feed posts now on the weekend, like usual, and I must ask how this relates to your current obsession with witnessing and faith. Of course, only if that’s something you’re willing to share.

    P.S. At first, I thought this was going to be a story about someone with synesthesia b/c of the mixing of senses (hallway smelling cold, feelings being orange), but I’ll take hats and death instead too. 🙂

  6. You know, I’ve been fascinated with synesthesia for about 15 years, ever since reading about it in a science magazine, and sometimes I just write weird metaphors like that.

    I’m reading about witnessing, proselytizing, and faith for my current wip, and it led me down this path where I was thinking about what people DON’T see, refuse to be witness to, and willful blindness, that kind of thing.

    So I added death and hats, and voila! Hehe.

    • Yay for synesthesia love! I didn’t know about it until my psych classes in college, but I also find it fascinating. The daughter of one of my former co-workers has experienced it since childhood and sees specific letters in color.

      And I am duly fascinated (as well) that your WIP contains things related to witnessing, proselytizing, and faith. *Want to know more!*

      (Unfortunately, when I think of you thinking about those topics and then where you live, I imagine the evil man from Topeka who does not deserve to be named. My good friend recently moved to Lawrence to do her Ph.D. in social work, and she’s told me about some of the recent counter protests against him and his church and for which she and I are both glad.)

      • You know, I almost hesitate to say this, but growing up with Unnamed Dude makes him really incidental and easy to ignore. I’ve never met anybody who thought those protests were anything other than horrid, and quite frequently have seen regular people getting really upset by them even if said regular person agrees that whatever they’re protesting is bad.

        They don’t witness, they hate.

        I PROMISE that as soon as I can, I will tell all about this book. I am so excited by ALL THE SECRET THINGS. Ugh. Worst part of this biz!

        AND, I know somebody who is synesthetic, and it’s so interesting to talk to her about it – especially because it makes me wonder about how we characterize “normal” brain functions and that kind of thing.

        • Re: Unnamed Dude of Hate: I can completely see that growing up around that would make it easy to ignore; it’s like you’ve become inured to it. My friend grew up in Kansas too (Gardner), but I think that having recently moved back after years in other states is probably what made it stand out.

          But on a MUCH HAPPIER NOTE to bring things back to positive land, I am now also excited by ALL OF THE SECRET THINGS. Hee! Maybe if you want to add something else to the mix (b/c I know that’s exactly what you need), you could add a synesthetic character who uses it as part of his/her witnessing?!? Huh, huh? Okay, maybe not. 😉

  7. Mmm, hats and drivers.

    I’m always in awe how a short story can span months of time and still be told in 2k without losing its soul. Or how so few phrases can make a character come to life.

    Also, hats.

    • Oh GOOD. I’ve been trying to practice that bc my current book takes place over weeks instead of days like all my previous. Glad it’s working here. 😀 Thank you!

      Yay, hats!

  8. I really like this one, too! I really appreciate the show of adolescent wonderment and self-expression. I think we can all relate to how as teens, one of our “few” freedoms was in how we dressed, and it’s so cool that Bernie chose hats.

  9. Pingback: Death’s Red Bowler by Tessa Gratton | Sifting The Clouds

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