By S. LORRAINE NORWOOD
In the beginning, the earth was water; there was no land. All the animals and the winged-ones lived up in the sky on the clouds while they waited for the land to dry, but it would not dry. Finally, they sent Grandfather Buzzard down and every time he would flap his mighty wings, he would form a mountain and a valley.
Follow your bliss, they say. Bliss for me. Chaos for others.
I am jobless and homeless, with a teenage daughter to support, which is why my daughter, Katie, and I have driven to the property of an 85-year-old woman I barely know, where I am prepared to wheedle, grovel—whatever it takes—to convince the old lady to give me a roof over my head. The woman stands before us in overalls, arms folded, waiting. She has a real name, but everyone in the valley calls her Ma. She is a wizened tiny creature, with thick unruly gray hair. After decades of working outdoors, she is brown and crackled like pine bark. I remembered her and her empty farmhouse when the sheriff’s deputy showed up at my door with an eviction notice.
Ma is wary of my offer to rent the dilapidated home place. “It ain’t for rent,” she says.
I won’t be deterred. I’m frantic. Katie, almost 16, needs to finish high school. She needs stability. And I need a job. Our clothes and furniture, what little we own, are scattered like rubbish on the front lawn of the apartment complex. Katie, as usual, has accepted these trials with equanimity. She likes her friends, loves her boyfriend, and trusts me to provide. She is convinced that I will do great things.
I have gone back to college, this time to finish. I am a divorced, exhausted middle-aged woman at loose ends, therefore euphemistically labeled a “non-traditional” student. My senior thesis, “A Place Named Ho-Tsa-Nah: Settlement Patterns and Recent Development in the Hosanna Valley” is almost complete. I have interviewed Ma and other inhabitants of the valley, who tell me family stories and show me old photographs. History books fill in the rest.
When I interviewed Ma, she was doing barn chores. She never once stopped to lean on her shovel or, as the other valley women had done, invite me into the house for tea or coffee. She was blunt, not overly fond of her neighbors, glad that her husband was dead, and disgusted with her grown son. Her ancestors settled in Hosanna Valley in 1870 where they laid claim to a cove formed by the eastern and western ridges of Brushy and Long John Mountains. The two ridges parallel each other, running north to the broad flank of Mount Pisgah, where they join in a deep wooded cleft of laurel and rhododendron, thick, dark, and impenetrable. Ma knows every tree and root in the cove, every rock and gully, every drop of water that bubbles from the ground, and every kind of creature drinking there. She knows when it’s safe to plant in the spring, which one of the valley farms has the best hay, and where the ginseng patch is hidden on Brushy Mountain. Social security and her ginseng money help pay the bills.
We are walking around the white clapboard farmhouse, stepping carefully over broken beer bottles. A hand-painted plywood sign propped against the front porch advertises in scrawling black paint “Pit bull puppys 4 sale.” She tells me that Charles, her son, lived in the house for a while. Others in the valley have told me about Charles and his unfortunate drug habit that led to three squares a day in the Brushy Creek Correctional Institute.
She takes us inside the house. It is 140 years old and smells like an ancient fetid cave. An odor of mildew and animal feces floats above the orange shag carpet. A flue hangs from the ceiling like a severed appendage, the old woodstove long gone. There’s a fireplace, but it can’t be used—cracks in the chimney, Ma says. There is no heating system. A kitchen gable juts off as one wing, a bedroom addition is a second wing, and a back bedroom, rising and sinking on the foundations, swells away from the house like a wave receding from the shore.
Ma gestures toward the washer-dryer hookup. The plumbing is new, she says. “Charles put that in a couple of years ago when he thought he might stay here.”
A thick dust covers the kitchen counters. Carcasses of ladybugs, hundreds of them, coat the tile floor and fill the windowsills. Some, still alive, crawl over the bodies, fly to the ceiling, drop somnolently to the floor, fly again to the sills and fling themselves against the window panes.
Outside again, Ma points to the dairy barn, the roof fallen in, the walls a web of kudzu. Her husband died 20 years ago from cirrhosis, and she was left to run the dairy farm by herself. “Liked to have kilt me,” she says. “Every day, morning and night, milking those cows myself.” She pats an ancient cow with bony haunches and flaccid udder, the last remnant of their once noisy and jostling dairy herd. We cross a footbridge over a small stream that skitters off the mountain ridge toward Hosanna Creek. Ragged planks, remnants of the old springhouse where butter and cheese were stored, jut over the stream. Sour gum trees, harbingers of autumn, are soaked in scarlet.
We walk inside the new barn, the one built in 1960, and Ma hoists a shovel, scoops up a cowpat, dumps it in a wheelbarrow. She says she buys a lamb every year, fattens it up, and then kills it for the meat. She shows me a cinder block stall where the lamb is confined. Rust-red splotches stain the walls and floor drain. I glance at Katie. She mouths the word “yuck” and sticks her finger in her mouth, pretending to vomit.
We trudge up the steep hill to Ma’s house. I am breathing heavily, but she is an elderly sprite, taking twice as many steps to my tall, lumbering legs and still she is not winded. We sit outside on her brick patio under the shade of a massive hemlock tree. I rest my back against the rusted metal chair. Katie catches my eye and grins, discreetly pointing to her forehead and making small circles with her index finger, her code for fruitcake, nutcase, crazy as a bedbug, what have you gotten us into?
Ma’s dog, an ancient German shepherd named Rex, growls and lunges at us, but because he is tied to the hemlock tree, he can only go as far as the length of the chain. The chain has worn a groove into the tree so deep that lips of bark enfold it. The dog’s toenails are three inches long and curl upwards, like the shoes of a royal fool. While we talk, Rex wanders around the tree, head down, shuffling counter-clockwise, his dog tags clinking with the rhythm of each step. I imagine him as he once was: a massive dog, powerful hindquarters pushing him across the pasture and up the steep ridge.
I try to persuade Ma again. “What if I fix up the farmhouse for you? I’ll paint it, keep your grass cut, and help you with farm chores. Maybe your son can move in when he gets out of prison.”
Katie extends her palm to the dog. Ma grunts and reaches for Katie’s hand—as punishment or protection I’m not sure—but the dog, stilled in its tracks, accepts my daughter’s caresses. Katie’s hair, black, waist-length (she is growing it long again) falls over Rex’s snout as she leans forward, and whispers in his ear.
Ma says, “All right, you can have it for three hundred dollars a month if you fix it up. There ain’t no lease. Just pay me by the first of the month. In cash. I don’t need no help with farm chores.”
“That sounds fine. Thank you very much.”
“I don’t know what you can do about heat, ’cause we done took the woodstove and put it in there.” She gestures toward the dilapidated ranch house; paint is peeling under the eaves and gutters hang from the roof.
“I’ll think of something,” I mumble.
After a neighbor in the apartment complex lets me borrow her truck, we move a desk and computer, two mattress sets, two armchairs, and a box of kitchen items into the house. We shove our clothes into the back seat of my car. Katie sits in the front seat holding a garbage bag filled with creatures—ragged unicorns, Smurfs, pink and purple ponies with wings. They belonged to her when she was a baby, and I can’t bear to throw them away.
After lunch, Katie takes a shower and we discover that Ma’s son, Charles, doesn’t know his left from his right. Katie yells from the bathroom that the shower knobs are backwards and the toilet flushes hot water. The faucets in the kitchen and bathroom sinks are also backwards, as are the washer connections. Katie dubs the toilet the redneck bidet.
I walk outside, making a slow loop around the house, happy for a roof over my head, but wondering how I got here. Indigo cumulus clouds gather over Pisgah and roil down through the valley. Thunder and lightning drive me indoors. I sweep dead ladybugs into the dustpan and dump them into a garbage bag. I lay down on the bed, and when I awaken, a cold front has moved in, bringing with it tendrils of mist that hang over the broad shoulder of Brushy Mountain. Frogs in the creek are sweet-talking. I can hear Katie on the porch giggling into her phone, so I know the person on the other end of the line is Jonathan, one of many lost boys at Katie’s high school. He’s smart, bored, his enormous potential stifled by inertia, passionate about gaming and manga, a teenager whose indolence is excused only by his cheerful nature. He wears black T-shirts and black jeans, and his black hair, as long as Katie’s, is pony-tailed, held by a black leather strip. He is her first real boyfriend. She is thrilled; I am terrified. But since they don’t drive yet, they are still at the mercy of his grandparents, with whom he lives, and me. Last time I picked him up, I’m pretty sure the smell of marijuana, like a potent aftershave, accompanied him into the car.
I could have called Katie’s father for help when we were evicted, but having been married to the man for 20 years, I didn’t have to hear the words to know the speech: Had I not embarked on a ridiculous quest for a career in anthropology (“Who goes into anthropology these days?”) instead of finding another paralegal job, had I not destroyed the family, left a decent home and husband who provided food and housing, and had I not turned Katie against him, I might not be in such a predicament. It was my well-deserved karma.
In many ways, he’s right. He was—is—a decent man. We met in college when we were 18 and quit school when we were sophomores; he, because he hated academics, and me, because I sopped up his every word and deed like syrup. If he hated school, then I must hate school. Hypnotized by the vision of the people I thought we were going to be, I exchanged my future for copper-bottomed pots and pans, a Dodge Caravan, and a camper. After Katie, there was full-time mothering and, later, part-time work in a law office. Corbin went to work for his father in a small construction firm. With Corbin’s charm and ambition, the company soon doubled in size. His housing developments grew from cookie-cutter homes of three beds and two baths to one-of-a-kind cedar and rock designs that seemed to grow out of a mountainside.
Katie made me happy; Corbin eventually accused me of only needing him as a sperm donor.
The law office offered a good schedule and a decent place to work, especially after I decided to go back to school. Unfortunately, my boss, a sober attorney with a wife and son, lost his way as men sometimes do when a helpless younger woman enters the picture. The woman was a needy client who shed copious tears and loosened the boundaries of his personal ethics. He divorced his wife, moved in with the woman, and began to embezzle funds from elderly clients in order to provide the life his sober side had denied him. The day he was arrested, he laid off his legal staff. I found myself instantly out of a job with no savings and only the dregs of a student loan left in the bank. Soon the rent was overdue and the rest is history.
We fall into the rhythm of the farm. The cow, which we name Flora, makes a circuit of the property, starting in the upper pasture each morning and wandering into our yard every day at 5 p.m. on her way to the barn. She chews on my grass and flowers, her fleshy lower lip stained green, her baleful eyes sizing me up as I sit in a rocking chair on the front porch, her head bowing to the next clump of goodness until she reaches the round bale of hay inside the barn. A flock of guinea hens follow her, pecking at insects in the grass. My worries about heating the house are calmed when a professor at school offers me an old Baby Bear woodstove lying dormant in her basement. Two muscular students load it into the back of the Caravan and follow me home, where they haul it into the living room and attach it to the flue pipe. I buy them a six-pack of beer and, happy, they head back.
Katie and Jonathan paint the living room and kitchen, and I rip out the filthy orange carpet that covers beautiful, original heart pine floors. I also discover that, despite the low rent and child support, I don’t have enough money to take care of us. Jonathan’s grandmother helps me get a job at the Food Lion in Wilkinsville where she’s a cashier.
I work in the deli from 6 p.m. to closing. Wearing a white hairnet and company T-shirt, I stand behind the glass counter dishing out deli meals to customers who look through me, sure that they know my life story already. Their presumption is wrong, but I play the part. With my deli money, I order wood, but when it’s delivered, I realize the pieces are too big for the stove. I’ll have to split wood all winter, but it’s a small price to pay for heating the house and a good antidote to studying.
Every day when I come home, Katie asks, “Did you let him go?” It’s a running gag. She wants me to rescue Ma’s dog. “He needs to run free, Mama. Just break the chain and let him go.” She expects me to work miracles.
Two hundred million years ago near the top of a mountain, a freshet of water finally penetrated a soapstone outcropping and seeped into the fetid Mesozoic atmosphere of what was to become the Blue Ridge Mountains. Over the millennia, the freshet carved a larger opening and regularly flooded its banks, creating a narrow valley of rich topsoil. The first indigenous people to settle in the valley named their special place “Ho-Tsa-Na,”the translation of which has been lost through time. The white strangers who followed in the 1700s liked the land so much they took it for their own. Their guns settled any disputes over ownership. Christians to the core, the settlers thought the heathen Indians who moaned “Ho-Tsa-Na” as they were forced off their land, were saying “Hosanna.” The name stuck and is still in use.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in early November, I am at my desk checking footnotes for my thesis when I get a phone call from Jonathan. He and Katie are at his grandmother’s. Katie is hurt and asking for me.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“She fell on some rocks.”
“Where’s your grandmother? Let me speak to her.”
“We’re not at grandma’s.”
“Where are you?”
“The swimming hole up at the end of Hosanna Valley Road. A friend of mine stopped by and said he’d take us hiking.”
“Let me speak to Katie.” I want to hug her. I want to kill her.
“I can’t. I’m out on the road. There wasn’t a signal up at the hole.”
I know the place. It’s on National Forest property. There’s a soapstone outcropping used by prehistoric peoples to gouge out pieces they turned into bowls and ornaments. Ancient grooves are still visible. Now the scooped-out top of the outcropping has filled with water and is used as a swimming hole, mostly by local kids and passing hikers.
When I get to the path that leads off the main road, Jonathan is waiting for me. We scramble up the side of the ridge, pulling at roots for a handhold, tucking our toes into the rocky path to gain our footing. Wizened limbs of laurel and rhododendron crowd the path and force us to climb single-file. Despite the sunny day, the path is dusky, the air cool and wet, and laden with the smell of rotting trees and ferns. We break into a clearing at the top of the hill. Katie is lying on a rock near the pool. There is a young man kneeling next to her.
“That’s my friend, Griffin,” Jonathan says. Griffin, I learn later, is two years older than Jonathan and a private in the Army. He’s stationed at Ft. Stewart near Savannah.
“Hey, Mama,” Katie says as I reach the pool.
Griffin is polite and solicitous. He explains that Katie was climbing one of the rocks leading to the pool when her foot slipped and she fell, twisting her leg, which is swollen from her ankle to her knee.
“It’s not Jonathan’s fault so don’t be mad at him,” she begs. “It was my idea to come.”
“That doesn’t matter now. We need to get you to the ER.” I gingerly roll up her pants leg. “Looks like you’re hurt pretty badly.” The boys help her to my car. Her face is twisted in pain. She groans but doesn’t cry out.
Autumn has come and gone. We’ve seen the last of warm weather until next spring. Mists form above Hosanna Creek in the morning and vanish by noon. The leaves are brown and withered, and while most have surrendered their grip of the tree, some are hanging dispiritedly, waiting for winter storms to rip them away. Katie sees this from her wheelchair. She sits each afternoon on the front porch, wrapped in blankets, waiting for Flora and the guinea hens. Her twisted ankle proved to be a broken tibia, which is not healing. Her doctor says it will just take time. Such a long healing period is rare in young people, but can happen. I am teaching her at home and plying her with vitamins and her favorite foods.
Tonight I don’t want to leave her, but I have to work. She says it’s okay as long as I stoke the stove, and bring her a tray of goodies and a trashy Hollywood magazine. I kiss her goodbye and run to the car through a drizzling rain. Hosanna Valley Road is gloomy; the center line fades into the wet asphalt and it’s difficult to see my way. Dying leaves blow off the trees and flatten against the windshield. I’m relieved when I finally get to Food Lion.
Around 9 p.m. there is a call from the store manager: “Your daughter, I think, on Line 3.” I pick up. I know its Katie although she says nothing. Strange that a mother should know her child’s breathing, but I do.
“Hi there, sweetpea. What’s up?”
“Mother.” Declaratory, no question attached to the name. Mother.
“Yes, honey, what is it?”
“Come home now.”
“Well, I can’t. I’ve got to clean up, then I’ll be home. It won’t take very long.”
“Come now.” Her voice is insistent, but robotic. Flat, cold, lifeless. Just as I know the sound of her breathing, I know the sound of panic—or more precisely the sound where panic should be but isn’t.
I sprint to the car.
It is hard to rape a child in a wheelchair, especially one with a cast to mid-thigh, but there is nothing quite so formidable as a drunken 18-year-old on military leave.
At the hospital, Katie accepts the poking and sampling of her most private self, now made public to me, the nurse, and the victim’s advocate, and then tells the deputy, “He was drunk. He’s not really like that. It wasn’t really him.” The deputy says he understands but promises he won’t throw away the file for at least a year in case she changes her mind. I know she won’t; once she makes a decision she never relents. I, on the other hand, am not so forgiving. I want his sorry ass hung out to dry, want him jailed for eternity, but I say nothing.
Back at home, I enfold her as best I can with the wheelchair pressing between us and we sit there in the living room, listening to the crackling of logs in the woodstove, saying nothing, thinking everything. At midnight I lift her, put her in bed and arrange the covers the way she likes it—blankets pulled over her shoulders but tucked away from her broken leg, which is sausaged in the cast yet still vulnerable. I kiss her forehead, stoke the woodstove, and pull on my down vest and cap.
Outside, the dark hump of Brushy Mountain casts a shadow against an even darker sky. There are more stars here than I have ever seen in filleted city light, stars that were blasted into being when the planet was still molten. I pick up the axe and swing it wide, feel the bite of the blade against the upended log, feel the give as the log splits and the blade sinks into the old stump I use as a chopping block. I cut wood for the rest of the night, until a creamy layer of light appears above the mountains and my arms can no longer lift the axe. Only then do I sink to the ground, lay my head on the stump’s ancient rings, and sleep. I dream that I am crying.
In the morning, I make a deal with Katie. I can understand not wanting to press charges, but somebody must know, somebody must be held accountable. I visit Griffin’s parents. They live in a modest subdivision of ranch houses, what is now called mid-century modern, built in the 1950s of solid ingredients. Today the houses are still sturdy, carports are intact, brick façades undamaged. Griffin’s mother opens the door. I realize I have seen her shopping at the Food Lion. She is expecting me, following my phone call, although I haven’t told her the reason for my visit. She wears jeans and a sweatshirt, holds a cup of coffee, and wonders if I might like a cup and a muffin, which I turn down.
Griffin’s mother and father sit on the sofa. I take the armchair directly across from them. I tell them that Griffin also needs to be in the room and they call for him. He is still in his pajamas, his hair tousled like a little boy’s. He sits on a bench under a windowsill and when I nod to him, his right leg begins to shake. His parents try to engage in small talk, but I cut them off. I’ve no time for chitchat. I get to the point, spare no details. I tell them everything. I want to press charges, I say, but Katie won’t let me.
There is silence when I finish.
Finally, Griffin’s mother whispers, “Is this true, Griffin?”
She looks at me. “He stopped drinking in high school. We got him counseling and he was doing great until he joined the Army. We’ve been finding bottles hidden under the bed, the sofa, everywhere. I don’t know what to do.” She is crying. I feel sorry for her, for all of them, including Griffin, though I don’t want to.
Still, I won’t let them off the hook that easily. “She was a virgin, you know. Was a virgin.”
Griffin does not look at me. The father stares at his folded hands. The mother’s face is pinched, stricken, but her eyes are wild, taking in Griffin’s slumped figure and then darting around the room, finally lingering on a photo of her son, a solemn Cub Scout. He is holding a cloth badge, the kind scouts sew on their uniforms, and he’s seated beside a younger version of his father who, smiling, proffers a knotted rope to the camera.
The tragedy of the Hosanna Valley is that the community is vulnerable. There is no zoning to protect farmland from avaricious developers or builders. The old people, generations removed from the original settlers, are dying and leaving large tracts of land to adult children who cannot afford the taxes. They have no choice but to sell the acreage and then watch as monstrous homes march up the mountainside or plant themselves on the ridgetop, like sentinels keeping watch. A supermarket and gas station are being constructed at the intersection of Hosanna Creek Road and Highway 276, where ninety acres of apple trees have flourished since World War II. Two fast food restaurants are soon to follow. Sediment permeates Hosanna Creek despite a line of traps along its banks. Old-time inhabitants fear that the spirit of the valley will not prevail against modern infiltration.
It’s the end of December. A heavy snow a week ago smothered the valley and a weft of silence still permeates to the ridgetops. The woodstove keeps us warm through the night if I get up at 2 a.m. to add another log and stoke it. Because of the cold, Flora and the guinea hens are staying close to the barn. Rex is hunkered down in his doghouse. I have fulfilled my promise to Ma; the house looks fresh on the inside and certainly smells better. I’ll leave the plumbing changes to Charles, who will go on parole in the spring.
I have finished all my interviews and turned in my thesis. I have a lab class and an internship to complete, and then I’ll graduate. Jonathan is no longer in the picture. Word of the rape is out at school. Katie doesn’t want to endure the judgment masked as pity and has decided not to return. I can’t blame her. So we’re moving closer to campus, about 50 miles away. One of my professors has a singlewide trailer she rents out and it’s available.
When I interviewed Ma for my thesis, I asked her about changes in the valley. She talked about the new people, people with too much money, people who rip out too many trees for their fancy houses.
“What can you do?” she asked. “Time was when there weren’t no coyotes in the mountains neither, but they’s here now. It don’t mean nothin’. These mountains’ll be here long after I’m gone, and everybody else, too. That’s all that matters.”
Katie and I drive down the dirt track and stop at Ma’s to give her the keys. I thank her for the use of the farmhouse. She nods, takes the keys, and throws a bone to Rex. Gray clouds undulate with the promise of sleet and snow; another storm is coming in from the north. The peak of Mt. Pisgah shimmers with hoarfrost. On Brushy Mountain, the winter die-off has exposed granite outcroppings, scabrous knobs that slink across the ridge like vertebrae. The variegated green lushness of summer when the forest, thick with vegetation, creeps into civilized places is a mere memory. Katie and I drive down the dirt farm road, juddering over the cattle gate for the last time. I turn left onto Hosanna Valley Road and watch the cove recede. It vanishes in the rear view mirror, as if the spirit of the place is powerless to hold us. Katie is silent beside me.
She doesn’t ask. She knows the answer.
I will not free the dog. He belongs to the tree.
Lorraine Norwood worked in journalism before make a midlife change to archaeology. She is the author of Duluth, Images of America, 2011, Arcadia Publishing and was named Western North Carolina Emerging Artist in fiction in 1997. She also earned second place in the Atlanta Writers Club 2011 memoir contest. She is a member of the North Carolina Writers Network, Atlanta Writers’ Collective, Atlanta Writers Club, and the Historical Novel Society. She has completed a historical novel, which she is shopping to agents and is hard at work on the sequel. She also writes short stories and very bad poetry.