by Sam Barbee
There's no wrong side of the track in Appalachia, just the side called the homeplace.
The Ararat River ties everybody and everything together one way or another.
No reason to dwell on Big City dreams. It all boils down to the way things leave you.
Recalling that cool October evening, those sweet night clouds hid everything but moonglow. I escaped laundry that night, chores next morning. Grabbed that flicker of neon in his handsome stories. By trade, he was a carpenter. Not broke down fretting over bad yields, or bad weather. Chestnut hair. Blue eyes. With him, never again would I scour ditches for pop bottles. No counting green stamps for sugar or salt. No more sitting with young 'ns while the rest went to socials, or to church. For that one moment, I stepped away.
No sister ever told me nothin about the way things was, worldly things that is. Just cooking . . . and then it was add salt, or too much salt. Could've learned that on my own, too. When mama died, I'd just turned eight: she would've told me what was what. And if he was living, Daddy would have got his Winchester and prodded that boy all the way to the Baptist Church, right through the town . . . probably right at Christmas time. That would've been beautiful, candles flickering behind stained glass, church-bells sounding across the snowy clearings.
For June, it's a gray morning. The air in this room is dead-still. There's a bush outside my window, a holly with some green berries. A thundershower made the berries glisten. The prickly leaves shed the rain, drop at a time. Up home, the same kind of bush speckles the meadow, like family gathering in July for the reunion. A picnic with checkered table cloths over barrels. Each aunt brings her specialty. Cousins, and children of cousins, all running into the sun.
My sister, Virginia, says I gotta get past this. Time will help me forget. The secret will heal. Mama told me once: I'd just as soon see my girls cold in the ground than cast shame on this family. Well, that's fine. I ain't ashamed. Not sure what I am, but have seen some of the Big City. I wish I could've seen my baby. Smelled my baby.
There. Different and brighter than all the rest. There is my wishing star. The first I see each evening, the last one gone by day. Long as that star shines, I know you're okay. Little one: you're eighteen today. Makes you an adult by hill code. Younger than your daddy was. He was twenty-one when he swooned me, and twenty-one when he slipped out of town. Eighteen is a good age. Can be a strong age. I was eighteen when we had our minutes together.
My motherness tells me you're a girl. Oh, could we share stories. But those years was stole from us by a thief in the night. One that slips away with a piece of you when the lamp burns low.
You'd think, four youngins later, I'd feel less for you, but no way! I want to give you your blood: bring you here where they lay, tell you their stories, stone by stone. By God, I do. Hold your hand, lace fingers, comb curls into your hair.
It's your birthday. So, I visit these graves. Seems a bit strange, don't it. But it soothes me to see these fifty, sixty kin. There's Mama, Daddy, the others, too. Now, my Daddy, he would've taken you to raise. In a heartbeat. Bought you butterscotch. Told you stories. Made sure you had a fine Easter dress, white and pink, and a pretty bonnet to match. Nothin' like that brother of mine: Gotta give it away, give it away, away, away, all he’d say. I could've taken good care of you.
I try forgettin' my birthdays, but never yours. Each year, I make it here to this meadow, and just sit between the long shadows of our stones. Night is flying in, and the trees in the heights are crying down in their roots. But, one year, I hope I see you come a-traipsing out from those red oaks and ironwoods. I'll pluck the burrs from your chiffon. Smooth out tangles in your hair. And we can stroll down the road, just a ways, to the homeplace. That day will be my proud day.
The dust will settle itself while we walk.
So many autumns ago, a seer told me my child would find a way right back to me. So much to do, now. How can I tell my others? Do I tell? Tell my first he's my second, my only boy has a brother?
I read this letter, over and over. I didn't know the child was a boy – must tell him that. Of course, how could I have done any different? I gave him up. He wasn't mine no more to fuss over. Can it be? Lord, somebody pinch me. My deep secret is out in the sunshine. How did he find me? Now my husband always told me if he was the child, he'd have to find his mama.
Forty years. Forty years, I've wondered, and, I guess, waited. Oh, me, I'm an old woman now. I'm silly and . . . I don't know what. How could he feel any good towards me? He has to. He has to. I'll tell him everything. No . . . I can't tell him everything. Oh . . . I'm addled. I'm going to him. He said to when he sent that picture. I wonder if his wife knows? I do not want to make trouble for this boy.
For now, I've got to sleep. I see that moon and that moon sees me. Each ripple in this old pane had heard my midnight talk, time and time again. There's a night's-worth in every inch of glass in this house. Tonight, I'm opening the sash, and fillin this house with the mountain's peace, and the bite of the bright leaf, and fillin the holler with my pleasure. I'll count every star, dance with every bluet, count all I got down to the spider in the cupboard. The seer told me. Yes, she did. One day I could rest easy, complete in this life. I like this night air sifting over me. Mama's comforter keeping off the chill.
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Sam Barbee has a new collection, Uncommon Book of Prayer (2021, Main Street Rag). His poems recently appeared in Poetry South, Literary Yard. His collection, That Rain We Needed (2016, Press 53), was nominated for Roanoke-Chowan Award as one of North Carolina’s best 2016 poetry collections; a two-time Pushcart nominee.