Like Lady Macbeth, the Widow Slain never told anyone her first name, so the customers at her tavern outside of Cambridge, Ohio never knew if prior to her widowmaking she had been Priscilla or Etzebeth or Candice or Candy or Clarissa; she also never told anyone exactly how her husband – whom she simply called “the Colonel” – had died, all she ever said was “He stopped breathing” and if pressed further for details she would simply repeat these words changing the emphasis: “He stopped breathing” and then “He stopped breathing” and finally “he stopped breathing.” This refusal to satisfy her customers’ curiosity was unnerving, as was her habit of carrying a ten-inch hunting knife in her hands at all times. Whenever the Widow Slain was angry, or she simply needed to use both hands, instead of slipping the long, sharp blade into its sheaf that hung loosely from her waistband, she would violently throb it into the top of one of the thick wooden tables that filled the tavern that bared her name. Locals knew to always keep their hands hidden underneath these tables: travelers didn’t. Thus it was not uncommon for an out-of-town traveler to get “fingered.” But this did not mean that they lost a finger, rather that the knife suck in-between their fingers as their hand rested atop a table; for this was one of the amazing things about the Widow Slain, although she knifed a tabletop two or three times an hour, she never once drew even the smallest drop of blood from any of her customers. Remarkable: yes. And also totally unexplainable. BLOOK! between the index and middle finger of a man travelling from middle Connecticut and a few minutes later BLOOK! between the ring and pinkie of a potbellied preacher from Poughkeepsie and a few minutes after that BLOOK! into that round harbor that separates the thumb from its brethren on a brighteyed boy from New Brighton. Remarkable: yes. And often remarked upon, to which the widow would simply reply The Colonel keep me.
Yes, the Widow Slain was deeply creepy. Adding to this creepiness was the fact that no one in Guernsey County could ever remember a Colonel Slain. What war did he fight in? And for what side? No one knew. One day, the Widow Slain arrived in Cambridge, opened a tavern, and began throbbing her hunting knife between people’s fingers.
But this is not to say that the Widow Slain led a joyless existence; no, the greatest joy in her life was drunksledding. Entering Cambridge from the east – and every caravan entered Cambridge from the east back then – meant ascending the steep ridge that rises above Leatherwood Creek that locals still call The Big Come Up. At the summit of The Big Come Up, the city of Cambridge stretches out astonishingly below you, straightlining down Wheeling Avenue to the viaduct crossing at Will’s Creek, which was once the site of the first bridge erected in the Northwest Territory and is now an arching concrete structure known around town as the Ugly Bridge due to the high probability – one-hundred percent chance, really – of seeing a person walking over this bridge who is ungodly ugly. Yes, this nomenclature may, at first, sound cruel until you happen to drive over the Ugly Bridge and observe a creature so nearly Neanderthal in appearance that it delights the inner Darwin that dwells within us all. And again: one-hundred percent chance, really.
The Widow Slain’s tavern was located on a narrow sliver of land perched high above Leatherwood Creek about halfway up The Big Come Up. Directly across Zane’s Trace lay an accelerating grassy hill that was perfect for drunksledding. So every evening at the precise moment when the drowsy sun dipped behind the crest of The Big Come Up, the Widow Slain would BLOOK! her hunting knife into the nearest table, down a dram of whiskey, grab her rickety red sled that was really nothing more than a couple of wooden planks haphazardly fastened atop two unused railroad rods, and holler Sun done gone down. Who’s coming with me?
Some went to watch, others brought their sleds; all were amazed by what they saw. Once she climbed to the top of The Big Come Up, the Widow Slain would launch herself, headfirst, with a terrifying shriek that could be heard for miles as it echoed around the Appalachian foothills. All the way down, she shrieked – was it out of pleasure or fear? No one could tell – but the shrieking grew louder the faster she went, as if the wind itself was tunneling through her slight body and whooshing its way through her voicebox. More than once her run ended in disaster. BAM! straight into a tree. CRACK! over a fallen log. KURRSE! across a pitch of black ice that rudely sent sled and sledder flying in opposite directions. More than once, spectators swore that they had just witness the violent end of the Widow Slain. And if not death itself, then most certainly a facial fracture or two or a cache of broken bones or lacerated inner organs or ruptured tendons; these amazed spectators envisioned the unenviable task of pulling the widow’s lifeless body out of a snowbank and lugging it across the road, fretting the entire way over how to contact her next of kin or having to undertake a burial collection – and where exactly was Colonel Slain buried? No one knew – but before any further concerns could be concocted, the Widow Slain rose like smoke from a dying fire, picked up her sled, and trudged back across the road. Remarkable: yes. And here’s the most unbelievable thing: never once did the Widow Slain ever sustain so much as a bloody nose or a scrapped knee or a stubbed finger or a blackeye from her reckless drunksledding. When the spectators hustled back into the tavern to inquire as to her physical wellbeing, they found her calmly cleaning her fingernails with her hunting knife. How? they questioned in communion perplexity. We saw you slam headfirst into that tree. We saw your body thrown like a maple leaf in a thunderstorm. We saw you land amongst a pile of snowcrested stones down by the tiny stream that peaks its head aboveground when it rains. Surely a doctor must be sent for. How are you still ALIVE?
BLOOK! the hunting knife pierces the nearest tabletop, not so much in anger but as a way to free her hands so that she can unbung a bottle of her best whiskey, although what most men would consider highquality whiskey was never in great abundance at the Widow Slain’s.
– The Colonel keep me.
[Drinks all around]
And just like that, the sun was gone again.
Scott Navicky is currently writing A Boozehound's Guide to Ohio (as compiled by the New Zealand Appreciation Society of Southeastern Ohio), a spatchcocking of a guidebook to Ohio and a creative misreading of Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy. His debut novel Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking is a creative misreading of Voltaire's Candide that begins in the Midwest and his second book, 3Essays on Imagereality, is a collection of photography theory essays that also function as humorous short stories.
Image: Cold Day, Boris Kustodiev, 1913