by Richard Bower
John Henry dreamed the night before the steam hammer
competition. Since childhood, he’d had a premonition of
dying with his hammer in his hand, and every schoolchild
from Alabama to Ohio knew how that turned true. He beat
the steam engine, punching railroad ties and hammering
through rock faster than mere machine, at the cost of his heart.
But this night, he dreamed of fields filled with wheat
aside mountains and forests swathed with pristine, apple
orchards. He traded hammer for plow and furrowed the ground.
Smoke signals puffed across the ocean sky, delivering
his happiness to the sun.
His father, a slave who starved; himself, a freeman who starved,
John Henry stole bread and had been sentenced to the chain
gang in his youth. His freedom earned swinging a railroad
hammer. For food and land, he swung for his life again;
until salted sweat beaded from his sun-darkened skin.
Pollyanne, his good wife, washed the worn clothes, patched
holes, and watched the railroad lead to another turn, another
tunnel, another pass. Everyone loved her as she looked
westward. John felt her presence guiding his hammer–swinging
rhythmic, persistent, and leveed. The throbbing in his temple
paced even with the hammer strokes upon the railroad line,
extending its manifest of people west, carrying wheat
from the plains east.
The dark morning of his challenge, John Henry woke. His eyes
opened, night surrounding his cot as he lay stomach down,
cheek on its side. A flawless skeleton stood beside his bed–
eyeless sockets, no flesh to carry, calcitic white bones. John
Henry’s muscled arms immobilized, no kick in his legs.
Tranquilized by sleep, his mind connected only to itself,
so he waited for his muscles to behave.
The skeleton nodded its head downward at his prone position,
as if sharing a secret. After a moment unfolding hours, John Henry
gained control and swept his arm out through the untouchable
hip bone. His swing wild, uncontrolled, the skeleton faded.
Richard Bower writes, runs, and teaches in Central New York. He is glad skeletons stay under the skin and fears the day they’d look to be seen. He has been published previously in Postcard Shorts and has flash forthcoming from Storyland Literary Review.