Aunt Tourelaine and Uncle Delbert wake me at 8 o’clock to break it to me, so I can break it to the girls, but I put on my blue jeans and red baseball jersey, run out the house without telling, run hard into hot August, through our woods and across the McGonagall farm, push past the sprouting corn stalks, where for the last few years, right before the new school year started, the three of us, Joelle, Laney, and I, each twisted off two ripe ears, picked the ones with the plumpest kernels, the deepest yellows, to bring home to Mama. I wade through the brush field on the far side, cockleburs stick to my jeans, poke through, and I skirt the Lightener place. I do not linger along the fence and reach up for one of his low-hanging golden delicious, inviting a kid like me to help himself, which I’ve done about a hundred times. You can snatch one out the air, dust its rough, gray-veined, speckled skin off on your pants, and take a big old wet bite all inside a single step.
But not this day.
I cross the Wetzell property, which is already a long way from home, and don’t stop to whisper to Boris, their silver-gray Wolfspitz, who’s barking up a storm, but who always calms down in small stages and licks my hand through the fence by the time I reach the end. I cross Pole Road Creek, which cuts through the heart of our township, only about five feet wide here. I do not lie belly flat in the deep shade under the weeping cherry and slip into the world of crawdads, striders, dragonflies, and big fat buzzing bluebottles looping over the slow-moving water.
I cut into some woods I’ve never tried before and run faster, trip over a thick root and bang my knee up. I keep moving, past tree-tall honeysuckle vines, the cream-colored ones Joelle and Laney pick for nectar, and patches of the periwinkle Mama always stops and kneels to the ground to smell. A couple minutes in, my knee throbs, and I slow down. The ground gets spongier till I come to a clearing, overgrown with weeds and saplings, but free of tall trees. In the middle, an old white building with plank siding juts cockeyed from the ground, half lifted and rising in the air, half buried in the mushy soil, like it can’t decide if it’s headed for heaven or hell. I climb onto the weather-battered frame of the tall, empty window at one corner, stand upright, and look in. Last year, before she went to the hospital again, Mama sent me to the first day of eighth grade at my new school over in Bryson City. She smiled, said, “stand up straight, you’re going to make new friends.” She was right mostly, but sometimes not.
This schoolhouse has gone to pieces inside. Wooden slats show through like teeth, large and small slabs of plaster scatter across the weeded floor, which is mostly dirt beneath, but a few islands of flooring remain, remind me of the Arctic ice floes they show in our geography book. Chunks of ceiling hardware and dusty-black iron piping jut from the ground, and in a far corner, a young tree has taken root.
I descend into the room and baby-step over, so as not to tread on a rusty nail or spook a copperhead or possum. An old book rests in the weeds at the base of the tree, and I lift it up and scrape as much of the muck off the cover as I can, using my fingernails for a bit, then a piece of pock-marked metal that stuck out the ground like a jackknife. It’s The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume XIII. Our one bookcase at home holds knickknacks, a collection of Reader’s Digests, and rows of food-crusted children’s books. When I was seven and the girls just starting pre-school, Mama read The Story of Ferdinand to us over and over, every night, till I had to tell her to stop. A few classics used to sit on those shelves too, with gilded printing on brown spines. Next to them sat two dog-eared poetry books, The Norton Anthology and The Gorgeous Nothings, by Emily Dickinson. Before she got sick, and even a little at the beginning of her illness, Mama sat with those books on the threadbare wing chair in the deep corner of our parlor, the light from the lamp reaching her pages from under the fancy-fringed, tasseled shade as we slept upstairs. She’d look up when I came down for a glass of water, but just for a second. Last year my father took everything but the Reader’s Digests and children’s books with him.
I rest against the tree, struggle to pry open some pages, and the sun breaks in from the window I climbed through, stretches across the floor to where I sit. The only page that comes open clean has the poem, “I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness.” A scrap of paper is wedged in the crease. It’s blue-lined loose-leaf, with words written in red ink, which has run all over the page. Best I can make out, filling in from a memory of some lines Mama recited, was, “The silver apples of the man, the golden apples of the son.” A mangy, gray-spotted cat jumps up to the window frame I came in on, stares wide-eyed at me, and goes back the way it came.
I don’t know what to do next, and I start picking burrs off my jeans. The warming sun gets me yawning, and I lie down on a patch of weeds under the tree, nod off to thoughts of Kiddo, the kitten Uncle Del brought home last year after Dad left the first time. In the mornings, Kiddo sprawls in the sunlight under the dining room window, squirms and stretches from time to time while we laugh at the breakfast table.
I dream I’m playing pinball down Trevor Semion’s general store, flip the ball hard, but it goes only a few inches, keeps coming back to the striker. I whack the button hard as I can and all of a sudden, I’m the pinball, headed feet-first for the hole at the top of the machine, like I’m sliding into home plate. The hole opens wide and becomes the sun, and someone grabs my feet, tries to yank me in.
I wake up, the tugging doesn’t stop, and I kick my feet, open my eyes wide. A man hunches over me, long, gray dreadlocks fall over his shoulders onto my chest, give me the heebie-jeebies, and I pull back quick. He smiles and asks, “You alive?” I’m not sure. That’s the way with me when I wake up, I don’t know where I am, a just-born baby too bollixed to even know what question to ask.
I scoot back against the tree, he squats, we rest that way a minute. His features come clear. Coppery skin. Dark, intense eyes drilling through me. Nose like the Roman generals we’re reading about in History. The full lips I’ve seen on other Cherokees, lips with something true in them.
The man asks again, and I remember where I am. “What is this place?”
“My home. You come in without knocking.”
“How long’ve you been watching over me?”
He lifts his gaze high above my head.
“Red-tail hawk,” he says, and I look up to the large brown bird sitting at the edge of a big hole in the roof, checking us out. “Lives down the creek.”
I get up, ready to leave, and a woman’s voice sounds from the far end of the room. “Hep, hep, hep!”
She’s come in through the ragged-framed door opposite my window, hardly looks at me, lets down the apron tied around her waist, and a whole bunch of food drops onto a patch of grass—ears of corn, a cabbage, potatoes, a couple tomatoes, and a plastic sack full of something.
He returns his gaze to me. “Red Mary. You’re in time for dinner.” I look at him funny. “We eat early,” he says. He picks up my book and walks over to her, and I follow, my knee stiffening up.
They live in the coat closet. Unaduti, that’s his name, takes me inside it, says the building is an old one-room school built on ground that got real swampy. The Christian church that used it had to abandon it. The closet runs across the back of the classroom, where the building tilts up. It’s about four feet deep, with beat-up sliding doors held in by nails and stuffed rags. They’ve put some old junk in, a mattress, a table, two chairs, keep it pretty tidy. At one end, there’s a stack of firewood four logs deep, cut neat, piled high, and secured by two metal poles, floor to ceiling.
Unaduti stares some more, gives me the creeps. Red Mary is getting dinner ready in the schoolroom, and I go watch. She looks Cherokee at one glance, black at another. She’s hardly five feet, body like a balloon, wiry black hair with orange tone here and there.
She goes outside the schoolroom, and I lift the edge of the plastic bag. Some wild raspberries fall on the ground. She’s filled it with cherries, peaches, pears, and what look like Mr. Lightener’s golden delicious. She comes back in holding a string of mourning doves, all sagging and lifeless, and she sees my eyes go big.
“Don’t worry your little heart none. I just snapped them.”
She cuts the cabbage, starts cleaning the birds, looks up. “Ain’t no free eats. Get down the creek and clean the fruit.”
I limp down a well-worn path to the water, try dipping the bag in the bubbling stream and shaking. When I open it, a lot of junk still sloshes among the pieces of fruit. I empty it on some grass and wash the pieces one by one. When I return, things are picking up. Behind the schoolhouse, a pack of raggedy cats is eating from a large bowl filled with rough-looking scraps. Unaduti is stacking logs beneath a large pot hanging from a metal rod. He asks me to gather more kindling, so I do that and help him carry more logs to the cooking area.
We eat on tin plates, the kind you get with pies at Ingles. It’s a thick stew, with bird meat, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and green beans all floating around together, and I like the way she made it taste, wish my mama made it that way. I wipe up the gravy with corn bread she made in an iron skillet. I could eat three bowls, but I stop at two. She sets the fruit in front of me, all cut up and swimming in juice. I eat two of those too.
Red Mary coughs and looks over at Unaduti, who nods.
“You run away?”
I tell them about it, my mama, my dad, the girls, my aunt and uncle, all what’s going on. When I get to the part about Mama, Red Mary’s eyes are watering and Unaduti looks worried. She nods her head, lifts up her blouse, and shows me the long gash where her breast used to be. I don’t know where to look. Unaduti goes over and puts his arms around her. Then he bends down and kisses her scar softly. That makes me feel bad and I don’t know what to say.
She drops her blouse and smiles. “Ain’t pretty.” She looks at my knee. “You hopping around like a gimp. Take a fall?”
I tell her it’s okay and she asks me to roll my pant leg up. My jeans won’t slide up enough, so she reaches around for an old tablecloth and throws it on my lap, tells me to take them off.
Red Mary takes her time, cleans my knee with warm water from the fire and soap, applies some alcohol with a cotton puff, which stings like nobody’s business, and puts the biggest band-aid I’ve ever seen on it. I thank her and put my jeans on slow under the tablecloth.
Unaduti coughs, asks me to finish my story. When I tell everything, they gaze upward with eyes that show they’re thinking hard.
“Sounds like a sack of shit,” says Unaduti. “You could stay with us a couple days, you want.” Red Mary nods.
I thank them, but I know what I’m going to do. Things get silent and I stand up, not wanting to overstay my welcome, something Mama always says.
“Can I help with the dishes?”
Unaduti laughs hard. “Red Mary don’t let nobody do dishes but her. Got to be so clean they squeak in the kitchen box at night.” He handed me the book. “Read us a story.”
“It’s poems,” I say.
“Don’t remember last I heard one.”
I read the poem with the long title, without understanding any of it. When I finish, their heads bow, they’re gnawing at what they heard.
“What’s that mean?” Unaduti asks and takes the book back from me. “The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon?” He looks at the page like he’s inspecting a rock. He’s been following it close and his memory of that line surprises me. I think about it, but can’t figure what it means.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“But you can read it out,” says Red Mary. “Keep at it, you’ll get it soon enough. We can’t read to get.”
I say goodbye to Red Mary, walk to the window, set to leave the way I came. Unaduti follows and hands me the book.
“Work out what it means.”
I thank him and climb through, make my way by evening light with the book tucked under my arm. For the first time today, I’m nervous in these woods. In the sky, a hawk drifts in a circle, using end-of-day light to search out a meal. A crow caws from the thicket beside the path.
For a minute or two, as light in the thick-leaved woods gets dimmer, I think I’m lost, but I make it out of there okay. I walk a long time, and when I get to the weeping cherry, I set the book down on the bank, lie flat and ladle water up in my cupped hands to wash down my meal better. I get impatient with that and press my lips to the brook, like I’m bobbing for apples. It tastes cool and sweet. I go back along the Wetzell fence and Boris runs up growling low, like you see in werewolf movies, but that doesn’t last long. I let him lick my hand, which feels good. I don’t mind being slimed.
At the Lightener place, I pick a half dozen apples, some for eating and a couple for slicing up, lift my jersey to form a basket, and put them in. In the morning, I’ll make hotcakes just the way Mama used to, apples sliced see-through thin and a sprinkle of cinnamon before dribbling the syrup on. At the McGonagall cornfield, I set the apples down on the red-brown dirt, take off my jersey and tee, put the jersey back on. I load my tee up with as many ears of corn would fit with the apples. I head back toward our woods and spot flashlights waving around at the edge of the cornfield. I skirt around that and see them in our woods too, so I take the long way and make my way to the house from the back.
I know what I’ll find. Aunt Tourelaine worried sick. Uncle Delbert telling her I can take care of myself. I hold back, lean against our pear tree, not afraid to go in any more, but needing to think on what’s happened and work out a new way about me.
This morning, Aunt Toury told the good news. Mama’s checkup was clean. No sign of the cancer that flew over our family like thunderheads for three years. This was her second good checkup in six months, which means a lot, my aunt said.
Uncle Del delivered the bad news, so he thought. My father would not be coming home again, left for parts unknown, probably prospecting in the Rockies, something he always talked about. He said it like Father left, but I know better. Mama told me soon as she was strong, she was handing him his walking papers. No man would treat her or her children like he did us those years she was sick. No man who couldn’t hold his temper, couldn’t be kind, couldn’t hold a job or stick around, no man like that would ever take part in her family again.
Mama’s coming home from Chapel Hill in two days. Uncle Del will be making the long drive from Swain County to go get her, while Aunt Toury stays with us. But I know what Joelle and Laney need, and my father is not here to provide it, and my aunt and uncle, well, they do their best, so it’s on me, and Mama’s counting on me to know that. I jump a little when Kiddo comes around the tree and rubs against me. He moves off toward the back door. I eye up the house and follow him in.