Some mornings I see him coming up through the mist. The grey shape of a long-haired man carrying a long-barreled gun amid the bare grey branches of the old apple trees. It is early winter. Just before dawn. Above him, the last fruit hangs dark and still as bullet holes in the fog. In an hour the sun will top the ridge and they will go red. But he is already beyond them, lifting a strand of fence wire, climbing through, entering the woods beside the cabin where I sit at my desk, my first mug of coffee in my hand, watching.
I know him from down the mountain. He lives with his aged parents in a trailer home on Sinking Creek just upstream from the pool his father dammed up to raise pet trout. Leviathan beasts. When the old man feeds them, scattering handfuls of dry cat food over the surface of the creek, the water churns with their frenzy: dim shapes down there big as sharks. Watching them, the old man’s face is all light reflected off the water. He makes low happy noises to his ripply fish. I once made the mistake of asking him how big he let them get before he ate them. He looked at me as if I’d suggested he barbecue his dog. An awkward moment. We got over it, as men will, by talking about meat. By the time I went back up the hill, he had offered me a jar of his favourite: canned squirrel, gutted and skinned and brought out of the woods by his son.
His son must be at least fifty. He is slow-witted, stuck with a mind not much grown beyond what it was when, as a boy, he first hunted on my father’s land. Now, watching him drift through the forest outside my window, his body secreted beneath the camouflage of his mud-spattered clothes, his shotgun looks like a wet black stick, the hair hanging down his neck grey as the fur of the coyotes that have returned to the hills, his beard long as an old gobbler’s and white as the flagged tail of a deer: that’s how natural he seems making his way through the woods. Then he is gone. The coffee’s steam is warm on my face. Out there, there is just the mist caught in the trees and the feeling of something moving, as if instead of watching my neighbor – the good man who, when he sees my headlights arrive at the cattle-gate late at night, drives up in his pickup to make sure it’s me, and not some stranger up to no good – I had glimpsed a ghost.
I might as well have. People like him, the people of this mountain valley, of this high hollow in the Blue Hills of southwestern Virginia where I have made a home, the people who stir in me the stories I tell, they are of this land in a way only those with roots going back before they were born, before their parents were born, can be.
A few minutes after the slow-witted woodsman passes by my cabin with his bird gun, he will step into an overgrown clearing where rhubarb has gone wild and pecans still litter the leaves. The old cherry trees have died and rotted. But there is still the cellar hole where an old hill woman once stored their fruit in jars. There are still the jars, broken and scattered in the black dirt like the century-old remnants of some long discarded sky. They must crunch beneath his boots as he passed by the still-standing T-post where Mattie Jones once slaughtered her hogs. She killed and cut them up herself, lived alone all the long years after her husband – gone mad, gone violent – was locked away: a real hill woman of the kind that are almost all gone.
There are none at all left as backwoods as the Sarvers, who lived even higher up on the ridge, even more shut away from the rest of the world. There were three or four families of them, what we might today call a compound. Then, they were their own village – infants, kids, parents, graves. Raised all their food, made all their clothes. On Sundays, in the dark hours before dawn, the whole clan would start the long walk along the ridge top towards town. Five or six hours later they would get there. They would go to the revival. They would sing, and holler, and sway with worship. Then they would turn around and walk back. By then, it would be almost dark. They would light torches. One by one, they would disappear into the woods until there was just the long line of flames flickering among the trees at the top of the ridge. A more spectral sight I can’t imagine. A sight like that you don’t forget.
I know because Russell hasn’t, though he saw it nearly eighty years ago.
‘Pine knot torches,’ he told me.
‘The resin?’ I said. ‘It burns that long?’
‘Oh my, yes,’ he said.
‘It must have been beautiful to see.’
‘Well….’ Russell has a way of stretching that word out until it says whatever needs to be said.
He is eighty-six years old, still unstooped, still steady on his feet, large-nosed and warm-eyed, beefy-armed and kettle-bellied and always wearing a sun-bleached hat. His palm is rough and his fingers are thick and his handshake betrays his gentleness and he’s my neighbor. The first visit I paid to his rambling, tin-roofed mountain home, we sat in his living room – that and the kitchen seem to be the only two rooms he still uses – with the TV on mute and the space heater cranked up. It glowed between us. Outside the windows, there was the blackness of a night unbroken by any other light but the stars.
I asked him if he’d always lived in the valley.
He turned, pointed to a small cot set-up in the corner. “I was born right there,” he said.
Since then, I have become something of a regular visitor, maybe the only one he has – his son works too much, too far away; he hasn’t seen his wife (he insists they’re still married) in twenty years; most of his long-time friends are dead. I walk around the dark porch and knock on his side door and he calls who is it? and then well come in! I do, to the sight of Russell in his suspenders and socks, the smell of the three boiled eggs he eats each night for supper. I bring asparagus from the garden or a bottle of whisky from a store. He gives me a jar of the apple-butter he makes each fall, maybe a dozen eggs from his hens, always a glass of moonshine poured from a quart jar. He mixes it with ginger ale. I take it how he does. We go into the living room to talk.
And every time I can’t see that cot without feeling the presence of the woman who gave birth to him in it. He still calls her Mama. When he was a kid, they used to wait out the long hours of winter days inside by the fire, hulling walnuts, the room heaped with piles of the blackened shells. No internet, or TV, or radio, or telephone, or even electricity. All the wood split by fall, and all the chores done by daylight, and it too cold outside to leave the house.
I asked him if they read to pass the time: Books? Magazines?
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I guess we got the Sears catalogue. It was pretty big. Took a while to read it.’ He grinned. ‘When we was done, we brung it to the outhouse. Took a while to use it there, too.’
Now, he has indoor plumbing and electricity, of course. Now, his son cuts the hayfields and raises the cattle. But each spring he still gathers morels in the woods (‘merkels’, he calls them), still plants in his garden the eyes of potatoes cut from potatoes cut from ones that were planted by his mother. He eats eggs from his own chickens, and won’t use butter that he doesn’t consider real – homogenized, pasteurized, packaged stuff. Instead, once a month he drives his truck some hours (at twenty miles per hour, tops) some unknown distance (‘one mountain into West Virginia,’ he says, ‘and then two mountains further’) on steep and winding and sometimes icy dirt roads to a Mennonite farm where he can get butter, as he says, ‘straight from the cow’. Once, he cut me a slice, handed me the knife, watched while I ate it off the blade.
‘That’s real butter,’ he said, smiling so the deep creases that run down from the corners of his mouth widen. They are stained brown. He wiped the chewing tobacco juice off his chin, his whole face showing as much pleasure from watching me taste the butter as if it was melting in his own mouth, as if it was not just churned cream but a sliver of memory: the way the cows teats felt between his small fingers and thumbs, his mother and sister in the milk barn beside him, the sound of the crank as they separated the milk from the cream, the happiness of the hogs feeding on the skim, the smell of the wood-baked bread steaming just before they spread the butter on. ‘Now that’s good,’ he said, letting his voice hang on the last word, drawing out ‘good’ the way he does ‘well’.
Twenty miles away – or as Russell would say, down two roads and over half a dozen hills – Sis is milking the last of her cows. She is a whole story in herself, a whole book, with her duck boots and thin mustache and dwarfish height and septuagenarian husband, Junior, who sits behind the cash register at the Sinking Creek general store, but that’s not why I want to go there now. Why is this: it’s dusk, and she is bringing the bottles of formula out to the calves. They are a gallon each, and heavy, and they fill her arms. She holds the bottles against her chest, arranged like four newborn babies, the rubber teats like knit caps. Inside the pen, the calves crowd her, push for the nipples. Soon, there is just the wet, rhythmic sound of their suckling. The low long whisper of a truck’s tires way off down the road. And Sis begins to hum. She sings to them, lullabies. And somewhere a cattle gate clanks, a dog barks, it is dusk. Yellow light in the small square window of the milking barn. Blue fields behind the silos. Up high on the ridges the rocks still hold the last of the snow, and the snow holds the last of the light, a lingering brightness that mixes with the low clouds until the ridge itself seems an apparition: it shifts, rises, falls – a limestone chest slowly breathing. Sis sings on. This is the valley as I know it.
At the end of the day, once I am done writing, I put on my sun-bleached hat, my mud-spattered coat, tramp across the field in my boots until I hit the trail that takes me up to the ridge. I bring a hot potato and shift it from hand to hand, warming my fingers in the evening’s cold. I tend to talk to myself, working out aloud the problems of a scene or a plot, sometimes waving my arms, occasionally shouting. Maybe a deer crashes off through the woods. Maybe a flock of wild turkeys bursts upwards into the trees. But the thickets of rhododendrons pay me no mind. And only rarely do I look up from the potato I have just split in two, the steam wafting into my wild beard, into my open mouth, and see a hiker coming down the trail towards me, frozen in mid-step, eyes wide, staring.
To Josh Weil’s photographs of the mountain valley, click here.
Featured photograph by Virginia State Parks