Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Ballad of Willy Bragg

by Jeremy Kelly

See that dark-skinned man walking beneath a rust-colored sky beside the Wilderunion Railroad?

That’s Willy Bragg come down from Sasquatch country to lead the way back home with a song.

He’s all dressed up in hobo clothes: a pair of dusty trousers strung up over his shoulders with suspenders cut from plow rope and a ragged old railroader’s hat hanging off the side of his head. He’s got an old guitar case slung across his back.

Listen. He’s singing to himself low and deep, muttering a song he’s been working at while wandering towards the crossroads:

A sad world is the Wilderunion,
Where there’s no such thing as home.
Like there’s no such thing as God or Mama,
Just the rust in my veins and my iron heart.
Please lead this boy back home, Lord.
I hear my mama callin’ me home.

Before he knows it, Willy’s at the crossroads. He looks west out over the tracks and he looks east out into the fields.

There’s a mighty rumbling now and the ground shakes something severe. He’s got to bend over a tad just to keep balance while he holds onto his cap. He looks behind him and sees a great black train coming like a blight upon the land. The face of the engine is a grinning iron skull bellowing thick smoke as it howls like a rabid wolf down the Wilderunion Line.

As the locomotive passes, Willy gets the feeling that if there were any green grass around, it’d surely die with the passing of this train.

The Brethren engineer leans out over the side railing and hollers at Willy while another shovels coal into the blazing firebox. They’re both hulking creatures covered in wicked tattoos.

Behind the engine come all the wood-slatted boxcars. Hundreds of pairs of little hands poke out from between the slats. Willy takes off his hat and bows his head in silence. So many children lost in the dark. Working for the railroad.

The train passes. Willy looks up and sees a man at least nine feet tall, black as soot from head to toe like a walking eclipse upon the world, standing on the other side of the tracks. The man speaks and his voice comes out like the sound of crushing embers inside a giant firebox.

“Hello, Willy.”

“Hey mister.”

“You desire something,” says the night-lacquered man, thick smoke escaping from his lips. “And you have something to give.”

“Well, sir,” Willy says, pulling the guitar case off his shoulder and dropping it into the dirt. “I don’t know if you a bad spirit or a good one. But I been playin’ these blues for a long time. The children trapped here in the Wilderunion—and the rest of us too, I guess—we needs a song. To bring us together. I wanna be the one to play it.”

“Give me your guitar.”

Willy pulls out this old guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Brethren” scrawled into the wood, and he walks towards the Scratch Man, holding it out in front of him.

“I’ll teach you a song, Willy Bragg,” says the Scratch Man. “But hear me now. No matter whom you play for in the world—in the end, your soul belongs to me.” Scratch’s eyes are burning like smoldering coals.


The Scratch Man takes the guitar from Willy and cocks his head sideways as he tunes the strings. Then he plays a short song that Willy can’t hear.

The Scratch Man hands Willy the instrument and steps onto the railroad tracks. “Go,” Scratch says. “Play your song, Willy Bragg, but don’t forget our deal.”

“I won’t.” Willy feels the blood begin to run hot in his veins down through his fingertips. Words and rhyme begin to fill his mind like sweet honey collapsing into a mason jar surrounded by buzzing bees. As he bends down to put the guitar back in its case, the Scratch Man starts walking down the tracks after the train full of children.

By the time Willy Bragg stands back up, the Scratch Man has disappeared both from sight and memory, and Willy forgets why he ever stopped at the crossroads in the first place.

So he shoulders his old guitar case and heads back the way he came, humming a new tune.


When Jeremy Kelly is not in the backyard digging tunnels and looking for new "specimens", he spends most of the time in the closet writing scary stories. Sometimes his lovely wife and son attempt to slide food under the closet door and plead with him to at least turn on the lights once in a while, but Mr. Kelly knows better. His most recent work appears in Shroud Publishing's Northern Haunts Anthology as well as Malpractice: An Anthology of Bedside Terror from Stygian Publications. He has work forthcoming in Necrotic Tissue's premiere print issue, coming in July. Find out more about him at


Jodi Lee (Morrighan) said...

Jeremy, that story leaves me wanting a lot more. A *lot* more!

Well done, well done. :)

L.R. Bonehill said...


Katey said...

Nicely done-- a few turns of phrase in there really lit the thing up. Very vivid alternate fantasy history. I could go for more!

Cate Gardner said...

Nicely played, Jeremy. ;)

jonathan pinnock said...

I like that. I now have a desire to go and listen to some Robert Johnson ...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. And yes, this story was heavilt influenced by Robert Johnson and old hoodoo legends.

Carrie Harris said...

So awesome. Like Jodi, I'm left wanting more.

Benjamin Solah said...

This is one of my favourites. It's really dark and I agree with Jodi, I want more!

Michael Stone said...

Aw, man, some of the phrasing in this story made me jealous -- it was a glorious and unforgettable invocation.

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading!