Our ancient rooster, Cockle, splits the morning calm with his scratchy crowing and rips me from an eddy of a daydream I prayed I could hold on to. That bird has been irritating since he hatched, but today he sounds worse than a metal scoop scraping the insides of an empty cookpot. I’m fully awake now, reality reaching into my chest and squeezing my heart. I fight my bucking chin, trying to hold back tears, although I know they have a mind of their own and can’t be intimidated. I was dreaming of Mama. She wore her playful smile, and her bubbly laugh filled my ears. Then Cockle ruined it all. My insides and outsides hurt as if I’ve been tumbled in a rockslide, though nothing the likes of that happened. But the notion that death isn’t fully done hunting my family is pounding me from all sides.
I’ve a long day before me, heading off our mountaintop to find a traveling preacher. The baby’s birth went bad, and Mama is laid up inside, doing poorly. On this sad morning, I’m angry at the birds for singing their fresh tunes, for welcoming the spill of warm sun across our rocky peak.
My one wish is to hear Mama say my name again. Soft, like a breeze through tree boughs. Willow. People’s voices create colors in my mind, and Mama’s is creamy peach. I want her to tell me everything will be fine, that she is just worn out and resting. Sorrowfully, she stopped talking hours ago.
My sister Ruthy, to be married after she turns eighteen in three months, enters the kitchen from the parlor. The blue of her eyes stands out against the bloodshot white, whether from the constant irritation of crying or the long sleepless nights. She has our Poppy’s brown hair, but it’s a messy bird’s nest this morning. I inherited Mama’s Scottish red mane and managed it into a braid last night or I’d look the same mess. She catches me staring at her hair and runs her fingers through it.
Ruthy reaches for my hand and gives it a quick squeeze. “You go sit with Mama, Willow.”
I nod. Born mute, I sign my question to her. “Has she talked again?”
“She’s still unconscious”—she straightens her flowered shift—“but breathing regular.”
My heart thuds as I push into the sitting room where we spend most evenings in the fall and winter. The oil-fired heaters that will warm the room again wait in the barn for the first cold snap. They’ve barely been packed away. Two windows are open. A spring breeze sweeps in the smooth lemony fragrance of magnolias mingling with drying mud and the biting scent of newly sawn wood. The neighbor men worked through the night building the coffin in case it’s necessary. It waits alongside the cabin, next to another smaller one. I used to love fresh-cut pine scent but now it’s ruined. I jump ahead in my mind and see Mama’s burying box, decades from now under the cover of moss, rotting there, never needed. I pray God is listening to our prayers and deciding that fate for the box. That we won’t need it. Calling home one Stewart kin member this day is pain enough.
In the center of the room, Mama lies on a single bed. A ray of sun strikes the ornate oil lamp hanging from the center beam above her. It casts a rosy glow through its hand-painted floral glass shade. Mama looks at peace, her folded arms rising and falling on the white sheet covering her. Her pale hands like two sleeping doves.
The menfolk moved great-grandmother’s Colonial-style cedar chest from the center of the room to the far wall next to Mama’s favorite padded chair and sewing stand. The stitching hoop still holds the last of the pillowcases she’s embroidering for Ruthy’s wedding to Leeman Castlelaw.
I sit in the spindle chair next to her bed and hope Mama knows it’s me. Her “silent gift” as she calls me. When it was clear as moonshine I’d never speak, she and I created a hand signaling language that works well. My older brother Briar caught on and was often my translator, especially if we ever found ourselves in unfamiliar company. But that was a rare event due to how far up in the hollow we live. Poppy, Ruthy, and my little brother, Billy Leo, understand me sometimes—but only basic ideas. If my thoughts are simple enough, like following water skeeters across a pond’s surface, they understand me. But for my below-the-surface opinions, I need Mama or Briar.
My eyes move to the three-shelf bookcase below the window. The top shelf holds one of Mama’s favorite books, Black Beauty. A tale about a horse’s early years and what his doting mother teaches him. The binding is worn from all the times she read it to us. When I recite the whole story in my head, word for word, it’s my mother’s voice I hear. I’m lucky that way. Most folks must hear their own voice when they think or have an inside-the-head conversation. Since I’ve never made even a squeak, I have mama’s speech tone in there, especially when I’m reading.
I study her hands and picture her fingers flying over the piano keys, my Poppy slapping his knee and saying, “Della Rae, you play like an angel in a vaudeville show.”
Those fingers. They braid my unruly red hair and tickle the backs of my legs. And Mama is a hand-holder. She always says holding hands is a promise between two people, a way to speak without words.
Reaching for her now, I wedge my fingers under her palm. The coolness surprises me and races straight to my throat, threatening to stop my breath. Why have I not held her hand more often? Spent more time in the house with her and less time in the forest? I’m sorry, Mama, I scream in my head. I’ll be around more. Just as soon as I get back from fetching a preacher. And trying to coax Briar home. I sob and choke and cry some more. My stomach tightens, and silence twists through the room, snakelike, burrowing through my fifteen years of happiness. If Mama passes, I wouldn’t care if I follow her into the next world because I don’t know if anything can fill the holes if I remain behind.
Ruthy enters with my youngest brother, Billy Leo, twelve, groggy and clinging to her side. She’s going to marry in a few months. Appears to me Ruthy doesn’t mind that Leeman reeks of the wild onion sulfur-like stink from digging the rare bulbs he sells to lowlanders at the Broken Fork Country Store. I know for sure I’ll be giving any future husband a good sniff before I ever agree to marry. That is if anyone will have me. At fifteen, it’s looking mighty doubtful.
“You best get going, Willow. I packed you a food parcel by the door. Poppy’s waiting on you outside.”
When I lean closer and kiss Mama, my tears splash her cool, dry cheek. I’ll be back tomorrow. Please be here when I get home. I wipe the moisture from her face, then turn to my sister, wrap my arms around her for a hard squeeze, and accept her kiss atop my head. Billy Leo lets me run my hand through his messy hair. The smile I try to form jitters around on my lips. Seems I know I’ve failed at offering a spark of optimism.
I leave the room, but Ruthy’s voice, with its scarlet-red cheeriness, pokes at my heart as she tells Mama that Billy Leo has come to sit a spell. When Ruthy marries off, I’ll be Mama and Poppy’s main helper, cooking and tending the gardens, working the old mule with Poppy in the fields. Ruthy won’t be but five miles away, though in the dark surrender of winter’s reach, distance increases tenfold.
I open the screen door and cut my eyes to the left.
Lucille and Everett Tate sit in rockers on our wide porch, sipping sassafras tea. The soft blue-green color of the porch ceiling reflects onto Everett’s white shirt. Although the paint color keeps the evil haint spirits from crossing our threshold, it can’t shoo away folks like these two. Mama and Poppy welcome everyone to our house, but some folks they’re less enthused about. The Tates are kinfolk. Cousins on Poppy’s side. But so far removed it would take exploring the family Bible back to when his relations first reached these mountains to figure how they fit in with our Scottish kin. Poppy likes to say if Everett ever had the notion to work his own crops, that notion would die of loneliness. Instead of being self-reliant farmers like the rest of the folks in our community, the Tates pester the circuit preacher to point them toward the next deathwatch or funeral where food is abundant, and gossip, singing, and a secret mug of liquor fill an evening.
“Sorry about your baby brother, Willow.” Lucille Tate is taller than her husband with a scowl between her eyebrows that ofttimes smooths out when her hair is pulled into a tight bun. Today is a loose-hair day, and her scowl’s so deep it looks likely to sing if handed a hymnal.
“We attended the four-county revival meeting just last week,” Missus Tate goes on to mention. Her voice swirls like gray ashes in my mind. “Reverend Cox done a bold meeting. Dozens of folks walked the aisle and was saved.”
The Tates believe they praise God’s glory more than the rest of us. Poppy says truth be told, they do seem busy in the eyes of the Lord, following His word to every pic-a-nic and church supper they catch wind of.
“We did an altar call in your name, Willow, asking the Lord to heal your affliction.” Lucille smiles. “You just wait, child. One day, He will answer.”
I sign, “Thank you,” but feel like a traitor, and heat flares in my neck. There are more important prayers that need to be sent heavenward than that of me talking someday.
My hand is clenched on the wooden railing. I release it and exhale as I walk down the three steps to stand by Poppy. He’s tall and solid, with bushy eyebrows, the left one cocked higher than the right, as if to say he is wise to the ways of the world. His fair skin, permanently seamed with wrinkles and laugh lines, will be bronze by summer’s end. He generally wears his whiskers only in the winter, but a two-days’ growth now spikes his chin and cheeks.
“They’re here,” he says, his usual hazel-blue voice a threadbare version of itself, worn thin from greeting everyone while under such strain. He points a knuckled finger toward our last kinfolk to arrive on our side of the Stewart mountain. Uncle Virgil with his crooked leg from the world war, and Auntie Effie with plum-size eyes that say she is stuffed full of more sadness than she knows what to do with.
They are my favorite relations.
Auntie and Uncle lead their horses to the crowded corral. I study the yard full of folks gathered round the makeshift tables of old wooden doors set across sawhorses. An hour ago, Ruthy and I served up fried rabbit and squirrel with wild horseradish pulp and early lettuce from the garden. Thirty-eight people have arrived for Mama’s deathwatch. Pans of cornbread drizzled with bacon grease and honey disappeared in one passing.
Poppy reaches for my hand.
“C’mere, Pumpkin.” He pulls me closer, then slowly rubs my arm, wrist to elbow and back. He wasn’t a hugger, but his calming way of smoothing out the wild side in our livestock works on us children too. Affection from him is rare. He’s done become a hardened man these past few years. Tragedy has nearabout wrung the happiness out of him.
My nervous insides feel as if they might burst out like a bottle of shook-up pop. I lean into his warm hands and enjoy the moment.
“You’ll soon be on your way, Willow.” His voice sounds full of tiny river pebbles, stonier today than usual. He returned from the war with a lower, crackling voice, surviving a mustard-gas attack that killed many a soldier. Now, like the rest of us, he hasn’t slept since Baby Luther died yesterday. “Just to the church in Helen and back. You remember my directions?”
I nod. The church is the easy part of my trip. Finding my twenty-year-old brother, Briar, might take me longer. He needs to come home. Fifteen months is long enough to heal old wounds.
Cornhusk mattresses and extra chairs cover our grassy yard. Past that is the corral where my horse, Jacca, a ten-year-old red roan with black points, mingles with the guests’ horses. His name means God’s Gift. Poppy bought him off the local Cherokee chief two years ago for a handmade chest of drawers. My pa is a right good furniture maker and Briar was taking an interest before he left home. The chief said Jacca was terrible for hunting because he was the talkingest horse they ever heard. Nickering and snorting, always trying to get his way. I smile. He’s at it again in the enclosure, trying to push his way around a huge draft horse to make eye contact and beg oats from the big guy. It surely is a gift from God that a mute girl should own a horse that’s pert and pushy.
Aunt Effie reaches my side and pulls me into a full-chested hug. My aunt and uncle would have arrived yesterday with the other relations and neighbors after Poppy rang the large dinner bell. Five quick clangs meaning our family needed help, and then after a moment’s pause, he added one more for Baby Luther’s passing. It was right then, before the startled birds returned to their morning song, a heavy rain broke loose and stayed hard at it most of the day. The river swelled, forcing my aunt and uncle the long way up Stewart Mountain to reach our cabin.
I breathe in Auntie’s lavender soap scent. A warm memory sweeps through me. Mama and my aunt sitting out on our front porch in the slant of the evening sun, breaking apart dried lavender heads into a pot of warm lard and lye and laughing about menfolk or family antics as they make enough soap to last the winter.
Uncle Virgil steps to Poppy and shakes his hand, then leans in to give me a quick squeeze. He and Aunt Effie treat me good, like nothing’s wrong with me. When I was younger and my cousin Len was still alive, I spent a lot of time at their house. They live right in our holler across the ravine. In late fall after the hickory oaks drop their leaves, their house and butcher shed peek through the scattered pines. With Aunt Effie being Mama’s sister and all, she and Ruthy will take over organizing the household duties while Mama is getting better.
My plan is to follow the old road off our mountain, make a left at the Chattahoochee River, and parallel it all the way to the lumber town of Helen pitched along the big river. Never been there before, but it isn’t more than eighteen miles away.
Poppy rubs my back as he speaks to my aunt and uncle.
“Willow is about to get busier than a moth in a mitten, but she’s up to it.”
Warmth moves through me at his praise. He’s been afeared that Mama might follow Baby Luther into the grave, and this has softened him.
“You travel safe,” Aunt Effie speaks into my hair, “and come back right quick.”
I try not to feel too proudful that Poppy asked me to ride out to fetch a pastor. God will easily slap down a person chock-full of pride as easy as batting a fat tick. It comes down to the fact that I’m good on a horse. I’m also the best reader and writer in the family and at the right age to be off on my own. I’ll find the first Protestant church I come across and hand them a note, asking for the next traveling preacher to offer a respectable funeral at our mountainside cemetery. Poppy said it don’t make no never mind which religion shows up. The pastors all know how to wrestle God’s attention for a time. Then on to a post office to get a message to Briar explaining the baby he knew nothing about died, and Mama is in a bad way. That’s the secret part of my journey.
“You don’t have a care now, Willow,” Aunt Effie says. “I’ll spend time with your ma and help the other womenfolk with chores.”
I squeeze my hands together over my heart. My sign for thank you.
Without a voice, I use hundreds of homemade hand signs, but my relatives understand very little. It isn’t their problem and it doesn’t bother me. At age ten, I shed my ill feelings about not being able to make a sound. Mama read the story from the Atlanta Constitution about a woman who has it worse off than me. That Miss Helen Keller can’t see or hear, but she gave a talk in a meeting hall. She said the greatest gifts in her life were curiosity and imagination. Mama said Miss Keller might as well be mountain folk with her message that the only excuse for being in this world is doing things to help one another. That’s how we live.
“Don’t you let folks get ugly to you out there.” Uncle Virgil’s brows knit together.
I nod and try to force a smile, but I’ve got no happy in me, just a stomach full of wriggling worries. I reach for the charm string round my neck. My fingers move across the four buttons there, finding the pink mother-of-pearl from Mama’s wedding dress. I rub the raised floral pattern between my thumb and forefinger, and my body eases. Mama called it a forever charm, passed down from her own mother’s wedding dress bought from a fancy store in Paris, France. It’s left over after making Ruthy’s bridal dress and my first happy ornament. The other three buttons are for remembering people who passed.
A pressed pewter button from Uncle Stewart’s Civil War uniform, a burnished brown one from older brother Luther Junior’s only suit coat, and a wooden one from my cousin Len’s hunting jacket.
Ray Finch, the holler veterinarian, walks by carrying a heavy burlap poke, darker at the bottom where it’s wet.
“Virgil. Effie,” Mr. Finch says. “Good to see you, although the circumstances are a cryin’ shame.”
Mr. Finch brought ice from his cave deep in Gumlog Gulch, and extra camphor. Baby Luther’s body has been kept cold in his tiny coffin with camphor cloths placed over his face to keep his skin from turning black.
Mr. Finch turns to Poppy. “How’s Della Rae doing, Luther?”
Poppy is the first Luther in our family. My older brother Luther Junior died in a mining accident on Pigeon Mountain fifteen months ago. He was barely twenty. The explosion happened only six months after Poppy returned from France, sick and dog-tired. Those days after Luther Junior was killed were a blur. All-day crying, no one able to believe Luther Junior was really gone. Poppy fighting with Briar over what had happened. The sharpest image I hold from that day are the shiny nailheads in the wood, where someone overdone the hammering to shut the wood-slat crate they sent my brother home in. A note came attached, stiff with condolences from Mr. Mercer, the Estelle Mining owner. Other scrawled words said the company believed they’d recovered most of my brother from the explosion but warned us not to open the lid and check.
After he was buried in the family cemetery on a high knob, the neighbor men left their handmade leather boots outside the cabin, covered with fresh earth from Luther Junior’s grave. I studied that dark dirt, stuck on the notion that it unfairly exchanged places with my brother. The black soil was free to watch the sunshine poke daggers of light through the morning fog while my brother was destined to darkness. I was only fourteen but learned an oak-size life lesson that day. In order to pack down the pain of losing a loved one, adults turn their talk to everyday concerns, such as how months of foggy mornings could rot through a birch outhouse faster than one bad winter.
Now our new Baby Luther isn’t with us anymore. Appears as if God wants only one Luther in this family.
“Willow will be back tonight.” Poppy squeezes my arm and his eyes squint, a move I know dams back tears. “God hasn’t called Della Rae home yet, and she’s a strong woman. In all her years of healing everyone else, she’s taught Ruthy how to help her now.”
He swipes the back of his hand across his eyes where it comes away wet. His next words are nothing more than choked sounds, and I hardly recognize his voice.
“Better she’s here if she passes.”
Hearing Poppy admit Mama may be dying sets me to crying big silent sobs. Snot running down the back of my throat threatens to suffocate me. Not only am I mute, but the airway parts in my throat don’t work like they do for other people. I have room for either phlegm or air but not both at the same time. “Narrow tubes,” the visiting doctor told Mama when I was four.
Poppy gently pounds my back and my breath returns.
Before Mama weakened and stopped talking, she asked me to be strong. I can do that.
“Let’s get you going, Willow. Do you have your whistle?”
I pat my dress pocket and nod.
He picks up my burlap sack with the food Ruthy packed. Before he takes a step, he says, “I have something for you.” Secretive-like, Poppy reaches into his pocket and pulls out a square wrapped in cloth.
I feel my eyes go wide at seeing the peanuts through the cloth. Mama’s skillet-made peanut brittle.
Poppy must see the surprise on my face.
“Ruthy insisted you have a special treat for the ride.” He tucks them inside my burlap sack and tightens the drawstring. “You enjoy this during your travels.”
I swallow hard. Poppy always says, “If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” This treat cheers me for the moment and puts a tiny rip into the uncertain veil of death hanging over the day.
Poppy’s face is full of emotion as he lays a hand across my back and plays with my braid. “Jacca looks ready.”
We walk across the yard toward the corral, so filled with dandelions the ground might as well be a soft buttery blanket. It begs me to lie down on top to let its velvet yellow petals tickle my arms. I’d pour out my pain into their simple cheery stamina. That’s the thing I like about dandelions. They’re strong, all busting out from cold earth the moment the spring sun chases off winter’s icy fingers. And then overnight, the dandelion turns to a white puffball, and the first time a holler wind reaches up the mountainside, it blows the puff to pieces, sending the bits traveling to places far afield never to return.
Today I’m like that puffball, except I’ll be back to my home in no time.
Poppy is no hand-holder, but our arms touch on purpose as we cross the yard. Everywhere I look reminds me of Mama. The yellow roses she’s trained to climb a fence. The newly planted vegetable garden. Her favorite chair on the porch, with its slightly crooked rocker and pleasant creak creak on the old boards early in the mornings when she’s shucking something or knitting. Her hands always busy. Sassy, the goat Mama bottle-fed when Poppy told her to let it die, stands below the clothesline looking lost and confused. Where’s her morning scratch behind the ears? Mama’s blue gingham dress, the last one she wore before giving birth, hangs empty over the poor critter’s head.
I’m feeling as hollowed out as that piece of clothing.
The guests sit on their thin mattresses, spread out like horizontal headstones in the yard. Some folks are asleep. Others are smoking corncob pipes and trading stories. The woven scents of honeysuckle, fresh churned dirt, and cherry tobacco make me dizzy, and for a moment, the world blurs at the edges. I sense the guests’ eyes following me as I open the gate and coax out Jacca. They all know my purpose in leaving. To find a preacher to give Baby Luther a Christian send-off. But they don’t hear the prayer playing through my head.
I pray that if I ride fast enough, using one of the skills God granted me, nothing will happen to Mama while I’m gone. Burrowed deep inside my heart, a tiny voice, one I don’t recognize, speaks in golden tones. It says Mama won’t pass with all of her children home and by her side. It’s why I’ve secretly vowed to find Briar, even though his parting words to Poppy were that he’d never set foot on our homestead again. Perhaps time has picked away his feeling of scorn.
Slipping the sack’s long drawstring over my head and across one shoulder, I climb onto Jacca’s back. I touch my necklace, return Poppy’s wink, and head off Moss Lick Knob, or as our kinfolk call it, Stewart Mountain.