Things of this Nature
This is my story; a story of maps and blood, ghosts and memory, and how all these things overlay and underlay and weave themselves around and through each other, tracing their threads to the roots and proof below the skin of things.
I’m a cartographer by trade, working for the Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, mapping trails here, in the state of Tennessee. In my work, it is topographies I’m bound to trace, but beyond that, it is the invisible or erased that draws me: outdated maps, ghosted boundaries, bygone features, property lines or locations, habitations that have disappeared, been eradicated or overwritten.
Walking these hills, I search the beds of old roads grown thick with trees, but traceable if you know how to look. In dusty back rooms of town libraries and historical societies, I sift sepia images of mill carts and faded Fourth of July jubilees, scour India-inked registers of births, deaths and marriage. Fragile maps reveal cartographies of dreams and visions, tracing the outlines of forgotten lives.
“This way!” these things say, and there you are, small as an ant, tramping the various ridge mountains of the Eastern United States – starting on the doormat of the coastal plain up the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Appalachian, the Great Smokies, Balsams, Roans, Brushy and Blacks. A fiber here dropped in the Cumberland Gap, the Susquehanna River pass, a flyaway, there, brushing the cliff of Molly’s Kitchen in the Green Mountains.
Following these spooling trails, you leave tracks in deep clay valleys, chasing cryptic hobo signage through stands of rusty leaning pines where the winds whistle mournfully at midnight. And somewhere, in this holler or that, within earshot of a long-gone railway line, you find the remnants: the last timbers of a hardscrabble cabin, a tumbled chimney, the wreck of a foundation choked with briars. Spring yields mountain secrets –cellar holes with tumbled broken shelves of mossy canning jars, a frost heaved rusted fry pan, washboard, partial sole of a long-gone shoe, the rockers from a chair that a mother may have used in the wee hours to soothe her crying child.
This is where my blood lies, in things of this nature.
I hail from Scots-Irish mountain folk with a few other things thrown in the mix. Tenant farmers, hill people all, whose cohee remnants fritter away in lonesome hill or holler solitude, visited by an occasional animal shuffling through thick falls of frosty leaves. In bygone days, perhaps a tramp laid up in one of these preserved spots. Hikers may have traversed the parallel demarcations, although this is doubtful, as there isn’t a trail I can name that is laid to cross paths with these forgotten roads.
Yet stranger things have happened.
Let me show you something here: Look closely, as if into the center of a crystal taw, and you will see, small and curved in the bubbled heart one of these locales. Mark, just to the right, a massive oak that continues its upward growth. Viewing aerially, as a sparrow flies, you will note that the tree stands in a remote quadrant east of an old oxbow, looping from a lesser-known creek running a hem’s edge of Hancock County, Tennessee. Winging down, you will spot, at mid-height, on the southern facing side connected to a stout branch, the bark covered bump of a well-knotted rope. That rope has aged itself into the tree. The overlying bark is thick with an additional camouflage of pale green lichen. You might imagine that a long-gone fray once swung in itinerant breezes, under a cloud-scudded sky, as the tree’s shadow lengthened and contracted under the sun’s daily dance.
The rope is at the heart of our story, it being an ending mark of a man who fled, with his wife and child, the woe of angry creditors and the persistent gnaw of hunger to catch a momentary breath among the blue shadowed hills. This being some time before the oxbow, the river was further from the tree than it is now, and the branch considerably lower. A singing stream ran less than a quarter mile away.
The pair was young, the husband being ten years the senior, both bone-thin, she in her teens with a thick mass of curly brown hair, a bruise fading under her left eye. His hair was black, flat as a tarred plank over hard hazel eyes given to flash-in-the-pan rage. The child was no more than two.
The little holler was dusking when they arrived in the tilted wagon the man had secured from a fellow he worked with at the mill over in Hopewell, where he’d just lost his job. It could be that the fellow took pity and traded the wagon for a pittance, or it could be that upon waking, he found the hickory wagon (with the near-rotted wheel) clean gone- along with a rangy nag, a length of jute rope, boards from the mill, an axe, hammer, long saw and a peck of nails.
It was late spring and the willows were in bud by the river, at the precise point where later the oxbow would emerge. Nightingales and warblers and dark-eyes juncos bid the world goodnight in the low slant fade of light as the wagon passed by. There wasn’t another human being to be found outside a ten-mile radius.
The man’s voice was tight as he reined the nag at the edge of the old forest and barked orders at the woman to collect branch wood for a fire. Tired as she was, the wife moved quickly off through the trees. The child slept on in the wagon’s footrest, covered by a ragged shawl. The man gathered his meager tackle and went to the stream. Luck shone on him for brief time and rare moment. He walked back to the wagon with some fair-sized dripping trout.
The man’s trout-luck held through the next day, when scouting the lay of land, he found a decrepit dwelling, abandoned and the worse for wear since the previous three winters had been harsh ones. “Ah,” said the man, “a sign.”
The couple set about their tasks and soon the dwelling began to find its shape. The woman tied the child to a low lying oak branch with the length of jute as she cleared out the fireplace and swept out the junk covered dirt floor, washed the walls, chimney and shelf with water hauled by the bucketful from the stream. The purloined hammer rang its rhythms through the holler as the man patched the roof, built a door and shutters for the window. The bony nag, tied on her own rope nearby, grazed the forest grass, sometimes touching her nose to the baby’s pale head. This was a week’s time in the late spring and the weather held warm and the luck held on. The man used the now extra lumber to shore up the shed and build a floor for the cabin. He trucked it in on his shoulders, a half-mile beyond the forest’s edge, as the wagon had no fit between the old growth trees.
In late summer the woman found a brilliant patch of blackberries in a forest meadow beyond the stream. She went picking with the nag and the baby one fine morning under a sky so blue it would make your heart ache, singing an old song that had come to her through her Grammy (who had it from her Grammy). Picking away, her little boy tied to her waist and sitting in a sunny tuft of grass clapping at the world. Plunk. Plunk. The berries went into the bucket and a warm breeze moved her hair. Plink. Plunk. The bucket was filling up nicely. She began the chorus and was, suddenly, joined by another voice. Peering around, she commenced to softly sing once more, and there, again, was the voice - distant, high and sweet. The bushes were thick and tall. The dark forest rustled at her back.
“Hello?” she called. There was no answer, but a soft shifting rustle from across the patch. The world under the vast blue sky, drained of sound, became suddenly very still under hot light of the nooning sun. Her hair prickling the back of her neck, she gathered the baby, called the nag from her warm clover grazing. Crossing the stream she looked back over her shoulder once, then made her way through the dark woods to the cabin.
By autumn it was apparent that another child was on the way. So, along with the work of her hands, the woman had her body to contend with. This did not sit well with the man, who was not known (to the miserable few who could claim any knowledge of him) for patience or understanding when it came to the plights of others.
It was not an easy time. The woman often dropped whatever was in her hands and ran out the door or around the corner of the cabin or into the ferns between the old trees to relieve her sickness. But in the way of luck, the weather held mild and the small patch of garden produced its fair share, along with troves of hazelnuts, black chestnuts and shagbark hickories from the woods. An apple tree at southern corner of the cabin gave a windfall of fruit. In late September, the woman found a chalk lime deposit further down the edge of the stream, but not too far. The little house was whitewashed inside, and was clean and cozy in the firelight. Game abounded and just as the world turned its cold shoulder the man brought down a large buck.
Winter came hard. The woman’s girth grew along with the man’s temper and before spring stuck out its first buds other blossoms had appeared on her face and backside. As the seasons turned, it seemed nothing could go right. Game was scarce and the nuts and apples long gone. The stream trout slept on in their dark pools as the man’s blooming fury turned to whatever he could strike. He cursed at the woman to silence the boy, looking down the gun’s barrel, as the woman toddled to the child, her growing enormity held out in front of her. The man’s voice was low, but in close quarters of the small house it felt like a shout. He had taken to disappearing without a word for days at a time tending trap lines and to sipping moonshine. She didn’t know where the whiskey came from.
Spring came at last, late but earnest, pushing up the ramps under buckeyes, lindens, hickories and oaks. The woman went with a willow basket to forage, her child again strung to her waist with a long length of rope. Sunlight beamed through the branches of the tall old trees, dappling the forest floor. The day was warm and smelled of promises and summer, the moist woodsy garlic odor. She commenced to sing an old song, which brought almost a wafting of her Grammy’s sweet tobacco. Glancing over at her boy, she saw him sitting stock-still, staring at a willow nearer the stream, which commenced to quiver, bow and shake. “Who is there?” the woman called. The willow’s silvery branches shook. The woman paused, and then began gathering ramps again into her basket. She sang softly, and another voice to wove itself in, finding a counter harmony. They sang on together through the sunlit hours. When the basket was filled, she called goodbye and, taking her son’s little hand, headed back to the cabin.
With the lengthening days, small game returned. A woodchuck gave up the ghost to provide a hearty stew, and that day, tossing dishwater from the noonday meal, a movement caught her eye. Turning, she saw in the sun-shafted edge of the forest, a dark girl in a pale sprigged dress. Their eyes met and the world hushed itself, as if a candle had been snuffed out or the holler had sucked its breath in. The girl held out her hand, beckoning, and then melted away, her dress paling as sunlight does through trees. A willow warbler’s mating call echoed to the twig-hatched sky.
That evening her husband drank. The small boy’s cries pitched to a scream as the man hurled his plate against the cabin wall, spattering fricassee across the whitewash. The woman moved to shield her child, fronting him with her swollen belly, but the man was wiry, drunk and swift, edged with pointless fury.
Coming to against the cabin wall, her face to the broom’s bristles, she heard the distant crying of her child somewhere beyond the cabin’s walls. Her husband sat staring into the fire, a canning jar of amber held to his knee, glinting in the flickering light. Up she got at long last, shuffling to the door. As quick as a wink the man was up, and with one hard shove her backside hit the cabin floor. At long last, crawling to the bedside, she dragged the old oak leaf quilt down, to cover herself.
In the morning, fevered and too sick to rise, her head is heavy, thick as clay. She aches all over. Her belly, swollen and strange, pins her down like a mountain. Sensing the cabin empty, she hears the door’s occasional soft creak and bang. Varied songs of forest birds float in, lulling her into a sinkhole of sleep. She awakes to an ice chill dark, as if a hard frost has come down. Her laboring begun, she calls to her husband but there is no answer beyond a barred owl’s mournful hoot. Hard contractions roll through her body. Willing her spirit up, up, up to the cabin’s pitched roof, she flies weightless. Later still there is a bitter aroma and taste of wild cherry bark steeped into tea. An old melody emerges, woven through with a tender voice and the scents of tobacco smoke, lilac. The woman rides ridges and valleys on the bony back of the clover-sweet nag. Her boy appears shining in silvered light that she thinks must be the moon’s. Other figures emerge, dim, shapeless. A stumbling horror appears near her face, cursing and spewing foul mash spittle. The figure fades, and the air clears to a dark girl in a light sprigged dress beckoning, beckoning the woman to follow a narrow mossed pathway that winds the mountainside through thickets into a warm misted vale of heavy, dreamless sleep.
In the end, who can tell what really happens? Put three folks in a cabin where something goes down, and each one will emerge with a different story. History is a cartography drawn in crumb-trails and whispers. We are here and gone, and nothing can change that. Yet each of us holds secrets like the cellars in the mountains.
My Grammy Byrd was born in a hill holler of Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1909. My great granddaddy, according to family lore, died face down in a stream near the cabin after consuming bad moonshine the night Grammy was born. Grammy says she remembers a marker under a willow by a stream, but where that is, precisely, she does not know.
Hazel Byrd looks a lot like me. In fact, she and I are the standouts in our Scots-Irish- Cajun-whatever family, for our looks: brown skin, kinked out hair, the whole nine yards of everything as opposite of Tennessee Scots hill folk as you can get. We’re the stuff that peeks up from under the surface so to speak, the discovery in your own backfield after a serious thaw.
Grammy grew up with two women in residence – Great Grammy and Aunt Phoebe Wing, a Deer Clan Cherokee. Both passed when I was a toddler, so I treasure the snapshot of me as a baby, sitting on Great Grammy’s lap with Auntie Phoebe out on our porch. Great Gammy and Auntie Phoebe are smiling at each other to beat the band. Perhaps I’ve just pulled some baby antic that’s got them rolling. Grammy and Mamma are on the step below, Grammy with a laugh on her face like she’s about to bust a gut. My father could have snapped this vignette just prior to his one-way ticket to the Mekong Delta, 1965. From all accounts, he had a wicked sense of humor, which could also account for the hilarity captured in that Kodak moment.
A number of years ago, I was researching old homesteads, combing various necks of woods for the bit of land where Grammy Byrd was born. A hunch from an entry on an old land deeds registry led me to some acreage off of Mulberry Creek. I came upon a massive oak, and climbed it to see what I could see. Halfway up, I paused to rest on a large branch with a knotty protuberance, idly poking at it, when in one of those revelatory moments, it became its true self. I picked at it with my jack knife, and sure enough, under the bark was a thick knot of rope. From my high perch, I noted several concave areas below me and descended to investigate. At the edge of one was an old apple tree and, diagonally across, a decrepit lilac sprouting new growth.
Under the lilac, sunken, cracked and covered in moss, was a small stone marker. I scraped away at it with my knife and a little willow emerged, carved over the inscription C.B. d.1909. Beneath this the phrase fly little bird, which caught my breath, and made my heart skip a few beats. Great Grammy had made a song way back that she would sing only sometimes, and Auntie Phoebe would join in with a counter-melody line. According to Mamma, it was enough to make your heart near break. (I dream about those voices sometimes.) Grammy on her fiddle and Mamma on her cigar-box banjo, sing it once in a long while, when the rain drums down on the cabin roof, fire crackling in the stove. The song is mournful in the way only a mountain lament can be, with its lonesome melody and simple words. The lyrics lament a little bird, a charlie bird. Charlie Byrd.
I had a little charlie bird
wings as bright as snow
one moonlit night he flew away
oh where did Charlie go?
I had a little charlie bird
who flew away in Spring
no more shall I joy to hear
my little Charlie sing.