A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles.
—James Joyce, “The Dead”
Lily was worn out from a solid hour of ferrying coats to the back bedroom and greeting folks at the front door. Hardly had she brought one uncle or cousin into the living room than another was letting in cold air and slanting snow when they stood too long with the door open.
The bed was piled teetering high with coats now. Lily knew that everyone had arrived except her uncle, Gabe, and his wife Greta. They seemed to be the most desired guests of all. Her grandmother, Sada, and great-aunt, Opal, chirped like little birds as they twittered about, but one of them was constantly poking her head into the foyer to ask if Gabe had made it yet.
Everybody loved the Morgan Sisters’ Christmas gathering. Usually it was held on Christmas Eve, but this year Opal had been in the hospital—pneumonia—so Sada had tended to her all through the holidays. As soon as Opal was released on New Year’s Eve, Sada had started planning a way to make up the annual get-together. When she lit on the idea to do it on Old Christmas, she could hardly contain her excitement. She had always wanted to have an Old Christmas party; people never celebrated that anymore. Most young people didn’t even know what January Sixth meant. So, they had called all of their closest family and told a few of the neighbors on Free Creek who were like family, and here they were, all crowding into the house on the evening when magic happened.
Sada and Opal had lived together in the little house at the mouth of Free Creek ever since Sada’s husband passed away twenty-five years ago, dead in the Dublin Coal Disaster. Opal never had married—her motto spoken with fists planted on her hips: “I don’t need no man and never did.” But the sisters had always needed each other. They both drew a small pension from their years of hard work—Opal at the yarn factory and Sada as a teacher at the Bray Elementary School, where she had given thirty-three years of her life as a music teacher—but they had saved for weeks to put on the Christmas celebration. They were proud to be able to provide a huge supper tonight.
The Morgan Sisters worshipped Gabe, a fact owed more to him being the only son of their lost brother, Jack, than to his general likability. They did like him, of course, just not as much as they loved him. After Jack’s death in the wreck on Buffalo Mountain, Gabe’s mother had remarried and moved to Knoxville as quickly as striking a match. But fifteen-year-old Gabe had refused to go with her, insisting on staying with Sada and Opal until he graduated from high school. After that he immediately went into the mines and steadily worked his way up to be a manager for one of the big companies. He had made his own way in the wide world and had not looked back. Now he had moved off to a subdivision in Lexington—much to the disappointment of the sisters and his own wife—but he still checked in on them regularly, usually by phone or when he was in the county for business.
There was a knock at the front door just as Lily was returning from storing the last couple of coats. Before she had time to put her hand on the knob, the door opened to reveal Freddy Mullins, who had not been invited, although his mother had. Bee Mullins and the Morgan Sisters had lived here as neighbors their whole lives.
“Whatta ye say, Lily-bug?” Freddy called out loudly, even though she was too old to be called by this nickname. Lily wanted to tell him that she was a sophomore at Berea College now. That she was the president of Bereans for Appalachia and secretary of the SGA and was known around campus as the girl who knew all the old ballads. She felt like telling him that she had spent the night with one of her high school teachers shortly after graduation, and before he had the chance to hurt her, she had quit him. She wanted to say to him that she was a grown-ass woman.
But what use was there in telling Freddy anything? He was always stoned. Pain pills had taken control of him. Still, she had always liked Freddy. In some strange way he had always been too smart for his own good. He had never known what to do with his intelligence, and that had destroyed him. She thought it a terrible waste that he had become a dopehead.
“You shouldn’t come in on Granny while you’re wasted, Freddy,” Lily whispered, but then her grandmother was suddenly behind her.
“Is it Gabe?” Sada called out, her voice always like a little song, but then she saw Freddy and the disappointment was plain upon her face. Still, she didn’t have it in her to turn him away.
“Come on in, Freddy. Bee’s in the living room,” she said, and directed him to where his mother was seated, probably going on about the good old days. Lately she had turned into one of those people who are forever mourning something that never existed.
Freddy wrapped Sada up in his lanky frame and overpowering scent of cigarette smoke. When he stepped back he was about to cry, of course. Freddy had always been so tenderhearted, especially when he was stoned.
“I’ve missed you so bad,” he said, unshed tears trembling like little orbs on his eyelids. “You was always so good to me when I was little. The only person who ever was.”
Just as Sada took Freddy’s arm and directed him into where the others sat, the door opened, revealing Gabe.
“Little Lily-bug!” Gabe said.
Lily ignored this, too; these people would always treat her like a child.
“Granny and Aunt Opal thought you’d never get here,” Lily said. “You’ve worried them to death.”
“Well, they forgot that my wife takes three hours to get ready,” he joked.
Greta slipped in the front door behind him and shoved it shut against the cold as if a ghost was on her heels. Greta had always had a certain kind of grace about her. She was tall and elegant, head held high, shoulders back, always well-dressed, but never in an overbearing way. She smelled wonderful, a fine mist of her sweet perfume always trailing out behind her, but never too much. Lily took a deep breath of her when they hugged. As far as Lily was concerned, Greta was Gabe’s saving grace: it was clear the woman adored him, so there must be something good about him. And the way he looked at Greta shined out from him, too.
Then Sada and Opal were upon them like a couple of redbirds pecking at breadcrumbs on the snow. First they covered up Gabe in embraces and their small voices. Sada held him by the crooks of his arms and peered up at him. Opal kissed him on the cheek. The highlights of their lives had been when he was young. Sometimes they would sit up late and make peanut butter candy and watch Westerns on the old-movies-channel. They tiptoed around on summer mornings to let him sleep late and he arose to breakfasts of homemade biscuits and gravy, pork loin, fried apples, fried potatoes. These scents always drew him back to Free Creek and caused an ache, a pining he could not understand.
Sada and Opal hooked their arms into Greta’s and led her into the living room while Gabe took his time unlacing his boots.
“Is it getting bad out?” Lily asked.
Gabe smiled at the accent still living in her mouth. Most of the young people he knew talked like television, but Lily had always been determined to never lose her way of speaking, as if it was some kind of symbolic act.
“Yes, it sure is. No salt trucks out yet, either. It’s bound to get worse.”
“I’ll take your coat,” she said.
He peeled off the Carhartt and handed it to her. She wondered why a businessman would need a workingman’s coat but didn’t say anything. He ran a coal company but dressed like a miner. She felt this was a very dishonest masquerade and had to hold back from telling him as much.
“How’s school going?” Gabe asked.
“Oh, I love it.”
“Better be careful up there. They like to educate the sense right out of people.”
Lily ignored this, but the bone in her jaw tightened. She had promised her granny she wouldn’t talk politics, especially within earshot of Gabe.
“Got your eye on a good boy yet?”
“Boys are the least of my worries,” she said, unable to hide her frustration. Lily’s mind was often boggled that men of Gabe’s generation still thought that a young woman’s only concern was to get married. Those days are over, she felt like saying, but held her tongue.
Gabe felt his face grow red and knew he had made a mistake, but he was also chafed by her tone. He knew she didn’t care about finding a man and he had wanted to acknowledge that with sarcasm, but she had misunderstood. He shed the heavy boots and stood them neatly against the wall. He dug his billfold out of his back pocket and plucked a fifty dollar bill from within, folded it between two fingers and held it out to Lily, a peace offering. Besides, her mother—his cousin, but more like a sister to him—had run off with some man, and, really, he should do something to help Lily, shouldn’t he? She had always been like a niece to him.
“Since I didn’t see you at Christmastime this year, we didn’t get to give you a present.”
Lily was struck by the notion that he wasn’t being generous so much as trying to make her feel beholden. This didn’t feel like a Christmas present to her, but a bribe. For what, she was unsure—to like him? To ignore his sexism and arrogance?
“That’s all right,” she said, although she certainly could have used that money. Her grandmother was very good to her, but Lily tried to never buy any new clothes or much of anything at all because she knew how little money both Sada and Opal drew each month.
“Why not?” Gabe was taken aback, the heat returning to his face.
“I don’t want your money, Gabe.”
He noticed the lack of “Uncle” at the front of his name, so he crumpled the fifty into his pocket and stomped away. He would never understand this generation and their entitlement.
“Thanks, though,” she called after him, diplomatically, already feeling bad despite herself. He did not reply.
Gabe stood in the wide doorway to the living room and surveyed the crowd, most of whom had turned their attention to Greta. She always lit up a room and drew everyone to her. There was a crowd of cousins and neighbors and a couple of musicians who had been students of Sada’s and had gone on to have careers in traditional music. She had told Gabe on the phone that she was going to organize a true Old Christmas party with square dancing and old-time music. He never had liked that sort of thing.
Gabe was a tall, stout man. His high cheekbones had always made him attractive to others and they directed one’s attention to his broad forehead, which gave him the air of intelligence. His eyes were off-putting, though: their coal blackness made them appear to always be burning their gaze into whomever was in front of him. And his eyes were incapable of hiding the way he felt about things. If he was bored with someone, it showed. Or if he was aggravated, or restless, or angry. There was some kind of brutal honesty in having a feature that would not allow him to outright lie about things, but he counted this as a curse more than a blessing.
Now Sada was instructing the musicians to carry most of the living room furniture into the back bedroom. She had made the transition to being friends with her previous students and even though they were full adults now, they deferred to her as if they were still in seventh grade and couldn’t bring themselves to call her by her first name. The banjo player kept a bright smile on his face, causing him to be nicknamed Sunshine long ago; he was a lanky fellow, as tall and thin as a plank of lumber. Because of this, Sunshine bent at the waist anytime he talked to anyone else to compensate for their own lack of height. The fiddler was unmemorable, one of those women who refused to wear makeup and wore old gingham dresses simply to look the part of an old-time musician. Gabe couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to look so plain; he found the woman pretentious and offensive, although she didn’t say a word and struck him as being perfectly happy to saw on her fiddle all night without a care in the world. The musicians shuffled by him as they carried out the coffee table—covered in trembling glass whatnots of small foxes, redbirds, and dogs—and the recliner where Opal was often perched watching her stories on the television.
“That’s what we always used to do, when I was growing up! Pack the furniture out of the front room to make way for the dancing!” Sada fairly glowed with this memory. “Tonight we’re going to do everything like the old days.”
Opal had hooked her arm through the crook of Greta’s, and they stood at an awkward V toward one another when Gabe approached. He looked past them into the dining room, where the table was crowded with platters and plates and bowls.
“Now you all won’t try to go back to Lexington tonight in this bad weather,” Opal was saying as Gabe drew near. “I won’t allow it.”
“We rented a hotel room in Manchester,” Greta said.
“Manchester! I didn’t even know they had a hotel.” A twinkle of laughter, like wind chimes in the faintest breeze of warm weather. Opal seemed very small to her nephew. Gabe’s eyes lit on the violet veins branching at her thin wrists, like creeks seen converging from the sky.
“Yes, brand new,” Gabe offered. “Lots of natural gas men over there these days. They stay sold out, the front desk woman was telling me.”
“Well, it’ll be too bad to drive back to Manchester, too. That parkway is awful dangerous once it gets slick out. They never salt it until daylight.”
“We’re in the four-by-four,” Gabe said.
“You know he’s always prepared, now, Opal,” Greta smiled. “He has to have all the latest toys.”
Opal laughed and Greta kept her gaze on the old woman, drawing her in with that way she had. That’s why people loved Greta so much—she made everyone feel like the only person in the world.
Now Sada stood in the middle of the living room floor where the coffee table had so recently squatted. She cleared her throat and thrust her hand into the air, an old habit from teaching that signaled they should stop talking. The murmurs faded away to silence.
“It’s time to eat!” Sada’s heels lifted momentarily in an involuntary show of anticipation. She was standing in bad light, which caused her eyes to look very sunken and dark. Gabe had a premonition of her in her casket and had to look away. “Now since we are doing everything in the old way tonight, I’ll ask that the men get their plates first.”
There was a quiet twitter between Lily and the plain nameless fiddler, to which the old aunt immediately said: “Oh now, girls, this is not a statement on women’s rights, just old times.” A ribbon of laughter slithered through the crowd.
Only then did Gabe notice Molly Blanton because her chest puffed up at the suggestion of men being superior, although her face was lit in a bright contrast of happiness. That was the thing about Molly, she could cuss you black and blue and never look unpleasant. She and Gabe had grown up together, playing in the creek (building dams, catching crawdads, an endless stacking and unstacking of rocks—this is what all holler children did), in every grade together from first until they graduated from Crow County High. Molly had married young and seemed assigned to a quiet life in the very place she had known all of her life. But then she got divorced and was raising two babies as a waitress at Pizza Inn and nothing changed for her for years, until they started the blasting up past her house. Then the fishkill had happened and suddenly Molly was marching on Frankfort and then the White House or getting arrested at the EPA. Now she had been in magazines and the Louisville paper had called her a “folk hero.” Even tonight she had had to wear her stupid I Love Mountains button to rub her politics in everyone’s faces. Lots of people hereabouts wouldn’t speak to her—to do so would be to betray the industry, after all—but the Morgan Sisters had always been Yellow Dog Democrats, and Gabe had a suspicion that even though they did not discuss politics with him, they were secretly members of Molly’s organization. He sickened at the thought of his old aunts giving up part of their hard-earned pensions to fund a group who lay down in front of bulldozers and invaded the governor’s office to get attention. Molly saw that his eyes had lit on her, and she nodded at him. There was a delighted arrogance in the acknowledgement, though, so Gabe darted his eyes away.
“So we’ll just walk around the table and fill our plates and we’ll all come in here and eat off of our laps,” Sada said. “But first, I want to ask Gabe to say the blessing.”
They knew as well as he did that he went to church more for business than anything else, but still, this was his birthright as the eldest man in the family.
“Well, I don’t know how good a blessing I can give, but I’ll try,” Gabe said, for any performance required this disclaimer; the culture demanded that any show be preceded by a negation of one’s own talent.
“Oh, hush,” Opal teased, “go on so we can eat!”
Another round of laughter from those assembled.
“Alright then,” Gabe said, and all heads bowed, even those possessing brains that didn’t believe in a thing, and Gabe knew he had to say something more than a prayer because of the lot who were gathered here tonight. They always made their voices heard in one way or another and now he would.
“Blessed Lord God, we are so thankful to be gathered with these saintly women tonight. Our country is turning away from you and becoming so lost, but as long as my aunts are living some bit of the old times and good manners will remain, Lord, when people took care of one another and these drugs and laziness hadn’t overtaken our young people.”
There was a murmur of nodding or shaking heads that went round the room, some in agreement and others in amazement at his ignorance.
“Lord, we are thankful to you for the progress you have given us to keep our economy going, to make us a living here in the mountains. But we need your help to get people back on track. Education is good, but we have so many people who go off and get the God educated right out of them today, Lord.”
“Amen!” came a voice, and even with his eyes clenched shut, Gabe thought it was his ancient cousin Hershel whom he had spied earlier, propped up in the corner like an animated corpse. Now Gabe felt he was on a roll, so he powered forward:
“And remember all those who have gone on before us tonight. All the ones who loved this house like their own home. My own daddy and Uncle Dave, Sweet Fern, and Goldie, and all the others we have loved and cherished. We won’t linger on the dead, but be thankful for all the living here tonight to join in fellowship and always remember and honor your blessed name. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen,” he finished, and half the room said “Amen” as well, their lips soft on the two holy syllables.
Then there was much commotion as the men loaded their plates. The Morgan Sisters had brought out real plates tonight, although big gatherings like this usually called for Styrofoam platters bent in the middle from the excess of food. The men made terrible jokes and took their time. The women talked and laughed behind them with some amount of impatience present in their bodies. The plain woman jig-jagged a little tune on her fiddle, standing in the middle of the floor with a pained look on her face and a patting foot. The sissified Sunshine plucked at his banjo, smiling maniacally at the plain fiddler the whole time, apparently determined to eat with the women. Gabe felt the music was a countdown, like a terrible jingle played on game shows while people made their decisions.
There was plenty to choose from: spiral ham glistening with golden pineapple rings, bowls heaving with mashed potatoes, potato salad, slaw, baked beans, and fried corn. An enormous offering of chicken and dumplings—Sada had watched Opal’s old hands pinching off the dumplings earlier this evening and felt like throwing her apron up over her face and running off to cry; they had been young together, after all, and now they were old and shriveling and shrinking—and a meatloaf smothered in ketchup, undersea salad (lime Jell-O pocked by colored marshmallows, smoothed with an icing of cream cheese and Cool Whip), hashbrown casserole, dressing woven through with mouthwatering sage. Most important: shucky beans that the sisters themselves had dried in the back window of Sada’s Ford Escort. Folks rarely made shucky beans anymore, but Opal and Sada were experts. They had not forgotten.
After a while, the women had made their plates as well, and everyone sat in a circle in the living room, bent over their laps as they ate and chattered. The conversation moved like a mist around the room, private in this pocket, animated here, an occasional phrase said that drew everyone in, then quiet as people fell into their own talks with those nearest them again, and then another topic that caused the whole group to listen or join.
“Now, we don’t want anybody to be shy about going back for seconds,” Opal sing-songed.
“No need to worry about that,” Greta spoke up. “I believe we will all founder tonight.”
There was much merrymaking. Peals of laughter occasionally uncurled themselves above the gathered people’s heads, bumped at the high corners of the walls, and lay flat against the ceiling, hovering. Everyone was engaged except for Gabe, who observed. He was not an observant person by nature. But here, amongst the people he had known all of his life, who had cared for him and would do anything for him, he felt like a stranger in another country. He could not quite say why.
They numbered fifteen and were crammed into the small front room, but somehow the crowded nature made things even more convivial. Their beliefs were diverse, but they had managed to live together in this community for generations as a kind of family. Gabe didn’t much fancy being around people who disagreed with him.
“This meal reminds me of poor ole Penny Dotson,” Bee Mullins said, not particularly loud, but the mention of death drew everyone’s attention. No matter how different any of them thought about anything, their raising had instilled one thing in them all: a fascination with mortality.
“Penny loved to eat better than anybody I ever knew,” Sada said, reverently; she admired this quality in people.
Freddy chortled that this was why she had died young, and why the coroner’s office had been forced to hire a man to cut the front door wider so her massive corpse could be removed with some semblance of dignity. Even Sada laughed, although she thought his saying as much was disrespectful.
“Old Christmas always reminds me of all the people I knew in this place who have passed on,” Opal said, and all eyes fell to her. “I always loved Old Christmas best of all. They always told us the animals could talk at midnight on Old Christmas, you know. But there was so much celebrating throughout the day—shooting fireworks and pistols and big suppers and so much company and music—that all the children fell asleep before the magic hour rolled around.”
“Except me,” Sada interrupted. “I never could go to sleep. I always took the big eye. But I didn’t want to go out to the barn because I knew the mystery was better than the thing itself.”
“I wish I had lived back then,” Lily said, dreamily.
“It wasn’t all magic and celebration.” Opal did not lift her eyes from her plate, where she was impaling dressing onto her fork.
“Still, there was a connection to everything that’s been lost,” Lily countered, in full classroom mode. “We studied about the bartering society to the cash-based, the transfer from the agrarian to the industrial—”
“The agra-what’s-that-now?” Hershel slipped in and a few people laughed at Lily’s romantic notions learned at college.
Lily glanced around to Molly, the one person she knew to fully understand her. Molly let her eyes linger on Lily’s to suggest her alliance. Molly had not been off to college, but she had read everything she could get her hands on. Books teetered in every corner of her home, and she had become an expert researcher on the internet. Lily had done an oral history on her last year, and while Molly was in the kitchen making tea, Lily had strolled around the living room, lingering her pointing finger against the many spines of the books.
“I worry about what will happen to the world once your generation takes control,” Gabe said. He wanted Lily to love him, but he could not help himself.
“Some would argue we already have taken control,” she said. “Look at the gay rights movement, for instance. My generation made those changes happen—”
“Yes, and I’m plumb ashamed of how behind the times our own governor is on that count,” Opal said, unable to resist putting in her opinion.
Sada thrust her classroom-quieting hand into the air as soon as she saw Gabe’s face go red in response. “Now I don’t want any talk of politics tonight!”
“People your age—” Gabe began.
“You heard me, Gabe,” Sada scolded, as if he were a child. A beloved child, but one that must be corrected. Then she set her eyes on him as if to say, I mean it.
Opal sensed her nephew’s embarrassment and knew an easy out for him, since Freddy had been blabbering on about Penny Dotson’s obesity ever since his first mention of her had drawn nervous laughter (“Why, if we’d had enough sense we could’ve gotten her into The Guinness Book of World Records. Biggest corpse!” he cackled).
“See if you can’t do something with him, Gabe, honey,” Opal stage-whispered into his ear, her breath hot and full of evening coffee.
Gabe was glad for this diversion. Escorting Freddy out of the room would allow him to escape the inevitable ballad singing, too. He hurried over and extended his hand to Freddy, who looked up at him with puzzlement.
“Let’s go out on the porch and have a smoke, Freddy.”
Freddy’s eyes were as red and watery as canned tomatoes when he looked up. Gabe flashed back to their childhood together here on this creek, all the various ways he had tortured Freddy for a laugh. He felt a momentary surge of guilt but then reckoned that the weak ask for their punishments in life. We must all puff up and fight back if we don’t want to be victims.
“I just had a cigarette,” Freddy said. But then his mother was pushing at his elbow and encouraging him to go; she was no fool and knew that Gabe was simply trying to save his aunts the embarrassment of Freddy talking over everyone. Freddy relented, and as the two men sauntered out of the front room, Sada stood and shushed everyone. Before they had even made it out onto the cold porch, a silence befell the room, and Lily began to sing:
I’ve been a foreign lander, for seven long years or more
Among the brave commanders where the wild beasts howl and roar
Gabe had not heard Lily sing since she was a very small child, and he was amazed by how old her voice sounded. Something ancient and wise. He thought she might be possessed by someone who had lived long ago; even her body changed when she arched herself into the words of the song. And how did she understand such pining lyrics, anyway, Gabe wondered, then realized he had missed her growing up completely. He could not help but listen as he closed the front door behind them, but immediately there was silence in the lonesome scene of the snow-covered holler before him. Freddy lit his cigarette and did not speak.
Inside, the entire room was mesmerized by the song, by the words and her singing, the way she stood before them, a young woman taken away by this old tune that had been penned by some agonized person who would never be known.
I’ve conquered all my enemies on land and on the sea
But you, my dearest jewel, your beauty has conquered me.
Outside, Gabe heard none of this. He studied the old cedar in the front yard, its boughs bent low with several inches of snow now. He had looked on this scene many times in his life, wondering why his mother left him with his aunts, wishing he was anybody else in the world but himself. The aunts claimed that the cedar had been planted by his Cherokee great-grandmother, but who knew if that was true? Everyone around here claimed to be half-Cherokee and half-Irish.
“You was a mean little bastard when we were kids,” Freddy said, smoke pumping out with his words. It seemed to Gabe that Freddy had been working up the courage to say this for years. “A real mean little banty rooster bully.”
Gabe didn’t reply for a time. He fancied he could hear the snow falling, a sound like time ticking away.
“I still am, I reckon,” Gabe said, at last.
“And no reason to be,” Freddy said. He had latched his eyes onto Gabe’s face with a visceral malice. “Not a damn reason in this world.”
Then Freddy was laughing to himself. Gabe couldn’t stand it, and asked what was so damn funny.
“I was remembering that time Molly whupped your ass over me. I bet you hain’t forgot that.”
Gabe took hold of the doorknob roughly, leaving Freddy to his own humoring. When he entered the house again, it was as if he had burst in on chaos. The banjo player and fiddler were playing a reel and Opal was calling a square dance. Everyone had scooted their chairs back to the walls as far as they would go, and there was room for three couples to do the Virginia Reel crowdedly in the middle of the living room. Square dances were rare these days, but Opal was an expert caller who could teach anyone. Men were in short supply in this crowd, so the couples were Bee and Hershel, Sada and Greta, as well as Lily and Molly.
Gabe couldn’t take his eyes from Greta. The elegant curve of her neck, the arch of her back, the smile that played on her lips as she looked Sada in the eye, as she had been taught to do during square dances in school and had never forgotten. Eyes green as clover. She was too good for him and he knew it. He knew it every single day of his life. They had had a terrible fight recently, and she had told him how tired she was of his desire to have more more more. That’s how she had said it: “All you want is more more more, Gabe. When will it ever be enough?” He had stomped away and gone out onto the porch, which offered no peace because of the constant traffic sizzling by on Versailles Road. He wanted to go back in and tell her that he bought so many things to impress her, to give her more, to provide them both with what they had never had growing up. She had been raised so poor, over near Lost Mountain, and the only way he could equal that beautiful curve of her neck or the cool place behind her knee or the perfection of her lips or her goodness was to show her how successful he was. But he couldn’t say that. He never had been able to say a thing that he really felt.
The reel was over. A round of applause circled the room. Sada in the middle of it all, completely alive, the happiest Gabe had seen her in years and years. Greta came toward him, her hand on her neck as she breathed hard. “Lord, what a workout!” she panted. His collar had become twisted, and she reached out to fix it, then let her thumb linger on the cleft in his chin. She had often said that was what first drew her to him. He knew she loved him, although he didn’t know why. Sometimes he doubted it, but in moments like these when she touched him out of the blue and let her eyes sit on his for just a second, he could feel her affection even if he thought himself unworthy of it.
“We need two couples in two squares,” Sada called out, and couples moved out into the middle of the room. Before Gabe even realized it, Molly was hovering over him, smiling down like an executioner.
“Come dance with me, Gabe Morgan.”
Gabe looked to Greta as if she might save him, but she laughed and nudged him out onto the dancing space. “Take him, Molly! He needs a good turn about the floor.”
So there was no way out of it.
While Sada explained the calls, Molly talked to him.
“I have a crow to pick with you.”
She nodded her head with great seriousness.
“What is it, then?” asked Gabe, smiling at her solemn manner. They had been children together, and even if she was a crazy liberal nowadays, he couldn’t forget that.
“I know we all have to make a living, but you don’t have to make it on the backs of others. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“Why should I be ashamed of myself?” He thought she might be joking. No one had ever been this blunt with him, ever.
“I’m ashamed of you,” she said. “I didn’t think you were a traitor to your own people.”
A feeling of perplexity washed over him. Him, a traitor, when she was out marching in the streets and helping to shut down coal companies?
The music was starting up and he had no idea what to do since he had not been able to listen to Sada’s instructions. He moved to let go of Molly’s hand and leave her alone there on the dance floor, but she had laced her fingers firmly through his. “I’ll tell you what to do,” she said, her eyes lighting on Greta’s briefly as they twirled past.
“All join hands and circle to the south,” Sada called, “get a little moonshine in your mouth.”
Then they were one big circle, moving in unison, and there was a beauty in that which Gabe could not even see.
When they partnered again, Molly’s entire demeanor had changed in such a way that it had shaped her body into something softer and more relaxed. “If I don’t give you a hard time, who will, Gabe?” she said now, as if the whole thing had been a joke. But it had not been. Traitor, he heard again, and thought it might be burned into the meat at the top of his back. The word was a hiss.
“Won’t you come to Lost Mountain with me, just one time, and let me show you what I’m talking about, Gabe? You’re from these mountains. You can’t go on tearing them down. If you could just come, and listen to us—” She was pleading with him, now, he saw. Probably the only reason she had even come was because she knew he would be here. A powerful man in the industry. And she thought she could just manipulate him.
“I have better things to do with my time.”
“Greta is from over in those parts. I’m taking folks on a tour over there in April, when the redbuds are blooming. I bet Greta hasn’t been in a long while—”
“We’re going on a cruise in April,” Gabe said.
“You go to the Bahamas instead of visiting your own country?”
“I’m sick of my own country,” Gabe said, and then mercifully they were called back into a large circle, then told to go to the center and whoop out in celebration. Gabe didn’t holler out, although the others did, as if they were having the times of their lives. All the while he felt Molly’s eyes burning into his face and finally, at long last, the song was over and he was free.
But then she was on his arm again, leaning up, and she whispered right into his ear: “Traitor.” As she pulled away there was a smile on her lips, and in that moment he realized that she had to smile to keep her anger at him contained. Then she was gone, as if she had evaporated into thin air.
He found himself beside Bee Mullins, who lit in talking to him as if they had been in conversation a long time. “And I never did get over the Dublin Mine Disaster. You know my brother was kilt in it. They built a big memorial up there and opened it four years ago, but I never could get Freddy to take me to see it. And you know, Gabe, there was a big snow on the ground, like this, the day the mine fell—”
He left her chattering away. The past, the past, always the damned past. It’s why he couldn’t stand to come down here any more than he had to. The past was everywhere, breathing out of the rocky clefts of the mountains, standing like mist above the creeks, hauled down the highways in the backs of coal trucks. The past and the dead, always present. Those two things would last when there was nothing else but the lonesomeness.
He realized he was at the table where the desserts had been lain out: a Better Than Church cake, a banana pudding, fried apple pies, an apricot nectarine cake, buckeyes, a Bible cake, peanut butter candy, a chocolate pie. The thought of taking another bite sickened him.
“Did you and Molly have a falling out?” Greta’s voice was suddenly in his ear.
“No. Why, did she say we did?”
“Not in so many words. But I gathered.”
“She was trying to talk me into going to see Lost Mountain, and I said I wouldn’t.”
Greta’s face brightened. “Let’s go, Gabe! I’d love to see the homeplace again, before it falls down.”
“You go if you want to,” he said, more hatefully than he intended.
The light in her face dimmed yet did not go out completely.
Molly hustled out of the back bedroom, shrugging herself into her red topcoat as she plowed across the room.
“Are you leaving before the dessert, Molly?” Greta called, putting forth her hand so that Molly had to pause and take it in a moment of tenderness between them.
“Yes, I’m heading on out. I’m full as a tick.”
“But it’s too bad out,” Greta said. “There must be a half-foot of snow, and they haven’t cleared the roads.”
“I’m only a couple miles away from where I need to be,” Molly said to Greta, but her eyes were on Gabe again. A devious little smile played on her lips.
Gabe knew what his wife expected him to say, so he did, begrudgingly. “I have a four-wheel drive. I can take you home if you’re bound and determined to leave.”
“I am bound and determined, but I’m able to take care of myself.” Molly gave an efficient little nod with her chin. “I thank you.” She hugged Greta as if they might never see one another again, holding on a beat too long, so that Greta eyed her with puzzlement once she pulled away. “Go on and enjoy yourselves.”
“Well, you’re a quare one, running off just when the sweets are served!” Greta said to break the strange tension, relishing the old word of her native language, only now realizing how long it had been since she had been able to use it in the presence of her own people. The women she mixed with in Lexington wouldn’t even know what she meant and would laugh openly at her colloquialism. They’d lean forward with the plum-colored wine in their stemmed glasses unleveling and their perfect teeth would say: “Talk for us, Greta. Say it again.”
“Bless yens!” Molly called out with a laugh, exaggerating her accent—the past in her mouth, breathing over her tongue, expelling itself over her teeth—and then she skittered down the hallway and out the door.
“What a strange bird,” Greta said to Gabe, although she did not believe this at all.
There was one more dance as a small group loaded their plates with many slivers of the various desserts, and then they all sat in the living room circle of chairs and gorged themselves on the sweets. There was much talk of gluttony, much laughter.
A mighty gale of icy wind that shook the house and sent bits of snow pecking at the window glass like little blue gravels signaled the unraveling of the successful party. This great wind seemed to remind everyone that they should get going before the weather grew worse, even though most of them were within walking distance. When Freddy escorted his mother, Bee, out, he glanced back at Gabe. Their eyes touched with some kind of understanding. Freddy had finally said what he wanted to Gabe and now they could move forward. Bee did not tell him goodbye. Groups of two or three left at a time amongst many embraces from all those gathering, except Gabe, who did not offer himself to hugging and was fine with a nod of the chin to say goodbye.
Before long, Gabe found himself part of a strange, disembodied tableau: he was sitting alone in the living room with the gray-faced Hershel, Greta and Sada had stopped halfway to the kitchen to talk about something that looked very important and serious, and just inside the kitchen Opal was chattering with her old music students and Lily as they stacked dishes in the sink. He could glimpse them moving back and forth like parts of the same machine. Hershel was going on about old times, about Gabe’s grandfather (“The best man I ever did know,” Hershel said), but Gabe was half-listening. He found himself surprisingly melancholy at the suddenly emptied house. Moments ago there had been so many people and now there was a handful. This left an inexplicable sadness moving in over him, like gray snowclouds overtaking a marble-blue winter sky.
“Oh, he thought the world of you, Harm did.” Hiram, Gabe wanted to say, for it had always bothered him that people distorted his grandfather’s name in such a way. But instead he had a sudden thought:
“Do you remember his mule, the one he called John F.?”
Hershel laughed a phlegmy laugh that collapsed into a tuberculotic cough. “Named it after Kennedy!”
“Remember those sorghum pulls, Hershel?”
Gabe could see it all in his mind: the old bony-hipped mule walking circles for hours and hours, turning the mill while all the people of his childhood (neighbors, Sada, Opal, Molly, his parents, Freddy, Bee, Hershel, everyone) took turns feeding the grass to the rollers to squeeze out the sorghum.
“The last time we had a pull I must have been about twelve years old,” Gabe said.
“Oh yes,” Hershel said, wiping his mouth on the side of his pointing finger. “That was another lifetime.”
His grandfather had died and the sorghum pulls ended and then his parents died and he had forgotten the rich amber taste of sorghum and the mountains had grown closer and then farther away with his breathing, moving, closer, away, closer, away, like a heartbeat.
“But every October, come sorghum pull time, for the rest of his life, that old mule walked in circles for the whole month. Remember that?”
“I had forgot,” Hershel contributed, but Gabe did not hear him. Nor did he hear the singing that had started up in the kitchen. The young man called Sunshine had started singing a tune at Sada’s request.
“And then that one fall, John F. wouldn’t stop walking in circles. He wore a mudhole in the field, moving around and around and around in the same place. So they had to put him down.”
Gabe had forgotten that, although it had once defined him. He had come home from school and ran out to see John F., finding only an empty lot. The stillness. The quiet. Black skeletal trees on the gray mountainside, clicking together like bones. When he ran back to the house and asked about the old mule, they had told him. He lost his mind and he had to be put down. Don’t be tore up now, little man.
And then Gabe heard them, in the kitchen, right now, the tall young man and Lily were singing together:
I will build my love a bower
By yon clear and crystal fountain
Sada and Greta were still in the hallway where they had been talking, but now Sada had her arm around Greta’s waist and they were leaning into each other, listening.
Now Opal sang, her old voice clear and strong, while Sunshine watched, his face full of admiration for his former music teacher:
And on it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain
They sang more, all three of them joining together, their voices like birds lifting and beating against the low ceilings of the house, unable to flee.
If my true love, she won't have me,
I will surely find another
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Just as the woman brought the fiddle beneath her chin and began to saw out an instrumental verse, Gabe saw that Greta was crying. She wiped at her eyes with quick swipes, as if she did not want anyone to know, and he could see her even though she was turned away from him. He would have known she was weeping anyway, just by the way she was holding her shoulders. He had never felt more distant from her, or closer.
Oh, the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
There was a brief space of silence when they finished, as if everyone was too moved to speak, but then Opal was clapping and the three singers gave a little laugh because they knew how wonderful the performance had been, and Hershel was rising noisily, saying he had to get on home. But Gabe could not take his eyes away from Greta. He had seen the way her shoulders trembled, the way she was struggling to not completely break down in grief. He had seen her and now everything was different.
They said their goodbyes. Greta embraced everyone, gave them all a kiss on the cheek. No one commented on her tear-stained face; music did that to folks. No matter. None of them offered Gabe more than a shaking hand as a way of saying goodbye (not even his niece, Lily—just a polite smile, a tight-lipped “Happy Christmas, Gabe”) except for the Morgan Sisters, who covered him in a double-hug, tears on their soft-skinned faces, tears for his parents, his grandparents, for everything he embodied to them. He knew that they did not care as much about him as they did for all that had come before him. He was the last of the old days, the youngest one who could still recall the sorghum pulls and John F., Free Creek before they all had telephones and the internet and a thousand channels on their televisions. That is who he was to his aunts. Nothing more.
They rode in near silence to Manchester, the four-wheel drive grinding over the parkway, which was caked in inches of snow that lessened the slickness of the ice beneath. The headlights seemed to barely penetrate the black night, illuminating only the huge snowflakes that continued to pummel down in the lit space three feet before them. Greta watched the white shapes of the mountains as they drifted by and when he started to speak, she said in a small, quiet voice: “Concentrate on the road, Gabe.” After a long silence as they travelled, she spoke once more: “We should have stayed the night with them instead of driving back to Manchester. Why did we have to stay in a hotel anyway? They had room.” She said this in such a way that he knew she did not want him to answer, then turned on the radio.
There was nothing but talk of the blizzard. “Snow has settled over the entire region,” the newscaster said on WYMR. “We’ve not seen a winter storm like this in a long while.”
The parking lot at the hotel was full of cars and too brightly lit. The large snowflakes fell like feathers in the white shafts of light. The lobby smelled of the chlorine from the indoor pool that lay still and unnaturally blue just beyond the front desk. Even though the hotel was only two stories, Gabe pushed the button for the elevator and they were silent as the metal box clicked toward the second floor. The room was featureless and a sterilized kind of clean.
Gabe flopped down on the bed atop the duvet and watched via the hallway mirror as Greta took off her earrings and unzipped her dress at the bathroom vanity. Her face was so weary that he had trouble gathering his words, but finally he called to her.
“You look tired,” he said, and she looked into the mirror, only then realizing he could watch her there. “I am a little,” she answered.
“Are you sick?”
“No, just tired.”
“Freddy Mullins is a real mess. I can’t believe he came to their house tonight. Most likely stoned.”
Greta strolled past and went to the window to pull the curtains but instead looked out on the snowy mountainside, well-lit in the unnatural streetlights of the parking lot. Her face was whitened by the scene she was watching. Gabe found himself increasingly troubled by how distracted she remained. Usually she was so agreeable, so ready to chit-chat and deconstruct cocktail parties they attended in Lexington. There was always something at those parties that rubbed her the wrong way. She said she felt like a foreigner there.
“I thought he was kind of pitiful,” she said at long last.
Gabe felt a stirring desire at the bottom of his stomach and radiating down into his lap. She was so beautiful there. He wanted to stand behind her and press himself against her, bring his hand up to cup over one of her breasts while he leaned down to kiss the top of her shoulder. She would turn to him, then, and remember him, and he would have not have lost her.
As if she had read his mind, she came to bed then, and sat beside him, and leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. He drew his arm up around her back, pulling her closer, chewing at her lips, drawing in her scent, but he knew that she was not there at all.
“What is it?” he said as she drew away, sitting back upright and turning away from him. “Tell me.”
“I can’t stop thinking about that song. ‘Wild Mountain Thyme.’”
She stood and crossed back to the window, looking out at the mountain once again. She had not drawn the curtains. Suddenly she was weeping. She put both her hands up to cover her face and her neck rolled forward, her whole body seeming to collapse in on itself. She was crying so hard now that he could hear her. Gabe sat up on the bed.
“What about that song? Why has it upset you so much?”
She wiped at her face and revealed it to the white light once again.
“Why?” he asked.
“I’m thinking about someone who used to sing that song, to me.”
“Who?” He was completely in the dark, but now he felt a sort of relief. She had probably been reminded of her grandmother, or mother, or someone, something from her childhood related to the song. He didn’t know why he had thought it might have a thing to do with him.
“A boy I used to know at Lost Mountain, before I ever knew you.”
The relief passed from Gabe and a dull anger gathered at the back of his neck. “Were you in love with this boy?” he said with a little laugh of disbelief, as he had never heard of such a person before.
“Oh, we were just kids. Sixteen or so.” But there was something in her voice that very nearly said, Yes, it was a kind of young love. “His name was Michael Burns. He used to sing that song, ‘Wild Mountain Thyme.’ He was real tenderhearted, not like the other boys.”
Gabe didn’t say a word, and it seemed to him that she didn’t want him to, as if she were articulating all of this for her own self. And he didn’t want her to think he was interested in this sensitive boy. He wanted her to stop talking.
“I can see him, plain as day!” she said, after a moment. “He had big dark eyes. Everybody talked about his eyes. There was something in them that showed everything he was feeling.”
“It sounds like you were in love with him,” Gabe said, knowing how petulant he sounded, “and that you never got over him.”
“We used to go walking. You know how it used to be. Holler people walked of the evening,” she said, and he noted that she said “of the evening” instead of “in the evening.” Another thing people in Lexington would not understand. And although he refused to talk that way anymore, he did know.
“I guess that’s why you’d like to go back to Lost Mountain, with Molly, then?”
“What?” She stared at him in surprise. “Why?”
Gabe shrugged. He hated himself for this jealousy, but he couldn’t help it. “How the hell do I know? Maybe to see him again.”
She looked back to the lighted mountainside for a long moment. After a time she said, “He’s dead.” Another pause, as if she were gathering her words. “He died when he was only eighteen.”
“In the Dublin mines. He was the youngest one.”
All Gabe could think was that he had been married to this woman for all of these years, worshipping her, really, and all this time she had been comparing him to some dead teenaged coal miner. He saw himself for what he was: a man who had never thought he was good enough for his wife, a man who had done everything to buy her the things that would make her happy, not knowing that nothing ever could. He turned his face away so she couldn’t see his shame.
“You were in love with him, then,” he said.
“I guess I was, in the way that teenagers can be in love,” she confessed. “It was a long, long time ago. Another lifetime. And in some way, I think he died on account of me.”
“How could that be?”
“Because he wanted to run off to Nashville and get married, and become a country singer, and I wouldn’t go. I wanted to do something more. I wanted to go to college and make something of myself. So I quit him, and he took a job in the mines the day we graduated high school. I think he stayed here to wait on me.”
All of this was news to Gabe. Somehow he had rarely thought of his wife’s life before she met him other than her childhood of poverty.
Greta sighed in the way that people have when they are finished talking.
“Poor ole feller,” she said. “He was really in love with me, I think. And for me it was just a kind of puppy love. You know.” She laughed a little, at last, but this made Gabe feel even worse, especially when he realized that she was not laughing but crying again. She was choking with sobs. “When he died, with all those men, I felt like it was my fault. It took me a long time to get over it, and I guess in some way I never did, because tonight, when they sang ‘Wild Mountain Thyme,’ it was as fresh as could be again.” She sat down on the edge of the bed and was quiet. Gabe didn’t speak. After a while, she lay down beside him and he slipped his arm around her waist, feeling her breathing become calmer and calmer until he realized she had fallen to sleep.
He watched her sleep for a while in the soft light falling from the window. She had had a life before him. She had studied on that life occasionally. And maybe she had not told him the whole story. Perhaps he didn’t even understand his own story, much less hers. He couldn’t wrap his mind around all the different ways he had felt tonight. Thinking of all those people from the past, the guilt Lily and Molly made him feel. He didn’t quite know why the old songs and the square dancing made him feel a kind of anger he couldn’t place. He didn’t know why the memory of that old mule walking in circles had settled down on him with such a thick sadness. Or why he could see death in the faces of his aunts. He pictured himself in the near future: one of the aunts on her deathbed, the other sitting in a chair beside her, Gabe trying to offer some comfort and strength. When the aunts died, so would his whole childhood, so would all of the past. Something of his being would be darkened forever. That time would come very soon, and then everything he knew would begin to disappear. Yes, that would happen very soon. He was certain.
The night was growing colder, easing through the walls. But the thought of death made him cold as well. He knew that one by one they were all dying, not only his old aunts but even Greta, even himself. He thought of how long Greta had carried that dead boy with her. The weight of that. She had loved him; he could tell by the way she had spoken. By the way she had cried.
He found that tears had filled his own eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been so overwhelmed with grief. Perhaps when he found John F.’s empty lot and had been told the circling mule had been put down. Maybe that long ago.
Compelling his grief was his thought that he had never loved Greta properly. Tears were dripping so heavily from his eyes that he was wetting the pillow. He didn’t want to awake Greta with his grief, so he eased from the bed and went to the window. Through his distorted gaze, he imagined he could see Michael Burns standing out there at the foot of the mountain, looking up at their window. Other forms were nearby, too. His father. Grandparents. His ancestors. The animals talked on Old Christmas, so why shouldn’t the dead be able to go out roving? He felt that his own body and soul had approached that thin veil between the country of the living and the country of the dead. His own identity was facing into that gray world. He was dissolving, dwindling.
A heaving wind shuddered against the hotel and sent the snowflakes to tapping against the window’s glass. It had begun to snow harder now. He watched the flakes until his crying stopped and his eyes were clear. Yes, the news reports were right: snow was settling all over Appalachia. It was falling on the skeletal trees of the hills, falling softly on the Cumberland Gap where so many had trod through to the West, softly falling on the memorial to the Dublin Mine Disaster, upon every part of the lonely church graveyard where Michael Burns lay buried. The snow lay drifted on the crooked headstones, on the barren thorns of the rosebushes that had been planted there. Something in Gabe opened up as he heard the snow falling faintly through his own country and faintly falling, like the descent of every person’s last breath, upon all the living and the dead.