I stumbled on this in my archives while searching for something else. It was on the cusp of my 50th birthday, five-ish years ago. Now Daddy is gone. In photographs, the people are disappearing one at a time, and when you stare at the photographs, you do not know who will disappear next. It is a mystery, same as the heart can be. I don’t often re-post, but I’m still away from home – weather in NC and around-about has delayed my returning . . . .
“I don’t belong here, and I’ve had to turn my not belonging into a triumph.” — Lynn Freed
All along the mountain and in the valley and in the corners and nooks and crannies and odd little places no one has ever seen except in passing barefoot while keeping the eye on a future and a past that lurks somewhere around the corner, and in those places were rocks hide small creatures, and in the shaded areas that hold critters great and small, and in those high high tops where hawk flies, and in the low places where the rodents run, in all those places, here and there on the mountain and in the hollers, there hides the secrets and mysteries that make up our families, ourselves.
Dear Readers, my dear ones, do you wonder about the mystery that is your kin? Or have you received the answers you are proud to know, or some that you’d rather not know? Do you remember what you thought and felt and longed for when you were a child? Do you think: Who was that child? What and who made me? Why do I long for the things I can’t have or can’t know?
This me who is Me holds mystery, and as I charge into the exact middle of one-hundred, I look into the corners where the dust lies, look where the cobwebs undulate with my passing, where the tiny cracks in the floor hold specks of dirt that have been tread down and down until the soil is a part of the wood. I look into the dark places, shining a light that can barely penetrate that which does not want to be found.
And it was while my daddy visited me, when we rocked together on the porch, staring out over the mountains as the creek sang to us, the wind pushed against the trees, the coffee steamed like tiny ghosts from our cups—it was then Daddy told me how my biological momma’s brother, my uncle, had years and years ago killed a man and was sentenced to death row.
I stopped rocking, turned and said, “I had an uncle on death row?”
Daddy nodded. “Your momma and I wrote letters of appeal and those letters got him released.”
I said, “I never knew him. I never knew that.”
He told me what he knew, which isn’t enough. Secrets are buried deep into the West Virginia mountainside.
I want another cup of coffee with Daddy, soon, soon. I want to rock and sip while he tells me stories of relatives from my momma’s side, and I want to cajole from him stories of his own kin, those Tennessee relatives I know very little about. Too many secrets on both sides. Perhaps some are too painful to speak aloud—I can guess from the black and white photographs holding the spirits of people who stare back with haunted eyes—as if uttering memories will make them come alive and wanting and real again, the spirit-words taking the awful shapes of those who would harm and become a full and dense being, a dark and ugly billow of smoky spirit shape.
I insert images of my momma running barefoot in the in the mountain forest, her feet turn black from the West Virginia soil, her skin is brown from the sun, bird-track freckles across her nose, her hair fans out behind her, her mouth stretched in a smile. She runs to catch a glimpse of the wild horses in the valley below, and she aims to capture one, jump astride him, and ride rider ridest!
And there’s Daddy! Young and strong in Tennessee, his hair stands on end, fingers greasy from peanut butter and fresh-churned butter sandwiches, his legs pocked with mosquito bites, one hand scratches the inflamed bumps while the other hand points and laughs at a friend dangling from a hickory tree. And he runs to the tree, a full-force boy run, and up up he climbs to find his own thick branch, and he suspends, feet hooked across the limb, the back of his legs bark tattooed, his head pointing to the ground, and the laughter falls from his mouth and down into the ground where it sinks into the earth and spreads until there is a tremor, an erupting, and up from the dirt pushes hope. Oh. I can see it. Can you?
My uncle killed a man, stabbed him until he was dead, went to death row, and was released. My momma and my daddy wrote letters of appeal, “It’s not his fault. You must understand that it’s not his fault. If you only knew his poor young life you would not do this thing.” And such was his young life that they released him. Such was his young life, that they released him. They released the young boy who became the man. I am at wonder with thinking of that.
I think about my blood, and what is rushing in my veins that comes from kin. I think about the black and white photos. I think about the unsaid things. I think about my blood—at times hot and boiling from the ancient line of my people.
I claim the title of Proud Mountain Woman. I claim the blood of my relatives that erupts wild with heat. I claim the blood of my Great Great Grandmother, that Proud Blackfoot Woman. (Do I claim the blood of the murdered man?) My kin, my blood. My proud Hillbilly blood is deep, buried far underneath my skin, down into the marrow of my bones, my strong gleaming bones.
My uncle kills a man, spills his blood upon the earth and it seeps far far into the West Virginia soil, seeps down deep, red turning to brown turning to black, and the man falls hard, his last thoughts no one but he knows. And my uncle stands with his legs apart and raises his eyes to heaven, a keening howl issues forth from his throat, and he lifts his hands to the sky with that man’s blood upon them, an offering. On death row he sits. Death row he waits until the boy is set free. And I see him well before his blood boils over to bursting, a young boy running from his demons (the ones my momma does not want to remember as she runs to catch a glimpse of the wild horses) my uncle’s skinny legs pump hard, the tears drying on his battered cheeks, fast, faster, fastest, his young red blood not quite blistering, only the simmer is there, rushing pumping beneath his skin as he runs to hide in the deep mountain woods, hides away from the terror that is his father.
When I was a little girl, I had no thoughts of lost relatives. No solid remembrances of my biological momma’s hand on my fevered brow—the hand I knew came from my adoptive mother, Daddy’s wife. I had little girl wishes and wants and magical thinking. I imagined myself astride a dark stallion, racing through the forest, his mane flying into my face, my long ponytail whipping behind me. His hooves thundered, matched the beat of my young girl’s heart. I rode to things (and I rode from things). I’d come to a clearing in the woods, dismount, and from my pack I’d withdraw a curry brush to wipe the sweat from my stallion. I’d drink a bit of water, and eat one of the apples, the other apple saved for Flame, or Midnight, or whatever horse name I was young girl in love with at the time.
When you are nine, ten, eleven, twelve, well, any future is possible than the one you really have! So I’d dream and imagine and wait. I’d ride my bike, pretend it was my stallion. I’d say, “ho boy, ho,” and make that gnick gnick sound to get him to trot, then canter, then gallop, then full speed we’d go, our hair flying.
Now, not young, not quite old, I still imagine myself astride my dark stallion, hooves thrumming through the forest, my head lowered, his mane flying into my face, my short hair sticking up crazily from the whipping wind. At the clearing, I call, “ho, boy, ho,” and dismount to brush out my beauty, drink my water, eat my apple and give the horse the other piece of fruit. And we look out over the Great Smoky Mountains. My Stallion lowers his head and munches grass, and I lower myself to the grass and lie on my back to watch cloud formations, listen to the crunch and snuffle of my imagined horse.
I lie still and think about my blood, and who I am, and my secrets and their secrets and our secrets. I think about family and strangers and friends. I think about my mother, the woman who opened her arms to raise my brothers and me as her own. I think about my biological momma running to catch the wild horse without knowledge of my one day coming to her so she could one day release me. I think about my daddy running to climb the tree high higher highest. I think about my uncle running from everything that hurt until he finally hurt back.
This is what I am thinking about today.