In these parts, they talk about the ‘Woman of the Hills’, who wanders the roads keening for the lover who betrayed her. In an uncanny white gown she roams seeking her betrothed. Those that see her turn gray overnight. Them she touches dies over a fortnight. I apologize to all them poor hearts to who she done so. I’m the one they say left her behind. Before you judge me harshly, though, listen to my tale of woe.
My people grew up soft as red clay and as loving as red wasps. So poor we thought nothing was something. We read the Bible and the JP Pearson general feed catalog from St. Louis. Wouldn’a had it, ‘cepting momma made daddy take the catalog in trade for some carving work he done. It give me ideas about how wonderful St. Louis must be, I tell you now. I had two older brothers, Luke and Tom. I heard mama had a stillborn girl long ‘fore I come along, but she never mentioned it. Luke took his Tennessee Music Box and looked for his fortune elsewhere. Tom left to fight wars I lost count of. Finally we got the letter and he never come back. My momma took ill after that letter and was never right again. My daddy did what he could for her, and that t’weren’t much, owing as he was worn down reaping shale and limestone from what our clay would give. They both went within a few months of each other. Our place was so far back in the hills that no one even looked to buy much less put coin down.
So at fifteen I went on the road to find somethin’. I’d not find better at home, and I couldn’t think I’d find worse somewhere else. I spent days walking the road out of the holler where I was bred without even seeing another human. When I slept, it was under the stars. This kept on for a mite. Lost track of how long, to be honest.
I been walking downhill for most of that morning when I heard the murmur of creek water. I went to the creek and knelt to drink. As I was having my fill I heard some branches break to the side. I stayed real still and looked to my left. A mule comes out of the brush sauntering up to the stream. He looked at me a moment, sussing me out, and then started drinking three feet past me.
There wasn’t a living soul about. It wouldn’t have been the first mule that had been left on his own after wandering off, or from being left behind by a family that couldn’t care for him anymore. I sauntered over to him as casual as the morning fog stroking the hillside and put my hand on his neck. He moved a bit but did not bolt. All I could think was that I could ride and save my legs a mite when a voice spoke out from beyond the trees.
“You in the habit of stealin’ mules?”
It was the voice of a girl and the eyes of a woman. She stepped out into view. Hair braided by sunrise, eyes as blue as deep water. I forgot to breathe, forgot to make my heart beat. If I hadn’t been holding onto the mule, it would have been the creek for me.
“You in the habit on sneakin’ up on folks minding their own doings?” I heard my voice squack.
She stepped out further into the clearing, wearing a hand patched dress of red and black. She made my head swim and my body ache like a tooth gone bad, like the sweetest cake you’d ever eat. She looked at me curious, like she’d never laid eyes on a man before. I stepped back to the creek and got me a gulp. I pulled myself up and tried to stare her down. I wiped my mouth and hoped I looked braver than I was. She stood still looking at me like I was cow with a duck’s bill, not saying anything else. She part twirled to her right and left, never taking her eyes away.
“I guess maybe you were mindin’ your own concerns.” She said. She didn’t sound like she really thought that true.
“I’m Bo Ledbetter.” I held out my hand.
For a flash it was like she got smaller. It was like she pulled herself deeper into her.
“I’m Rose Clannard.” She didn’t offer any part of her arm. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’m moving’ through. Headed for St. Louis."
“That’s too far away. I bet you don’t get there.”
It wasn’t like she was teasing – more like hoping.
“This your mule?” I asked.
“You think she’d barter for him?”
“What you got to trade beside your looks?”
“I can work – do whatever you need doing. Work from sun to sun as you see fit.”
She thought for a while, still staring, still weaving to her own inside tune.
“You’d better come on with me then.”
Rose sashayed into the brush, which seemed to move aside for her a bit so her dress wouldn’t get caught on the brambles or branches. It was deep woods we were in – the sun grew dimmer though it weren’t even mid day. She knew the woods. She moved through them seeing things as clear as if she was in a meadow. As we walked the sky clouded up and I could feel rain skim my face. I could also feel my stomach and hoped we’d see a fruit tree or some such thing to eat.
We kept movin’, following a path I could only see once or twice. It mighta been a tick trail, big as it was. She looked back once or twice to make sure I was still with her. We were in deep woods now, trees so big around two grown men reaching around the trunks couldn’t touch fingers. Moss was everywhere. Even the air had a dark green look to it. The further in we got, the quieter it got. Even though it was a bright day, under the branches it was dusk. The mule followed us, but I had a feeling that it was not his first choice.
We come out into a clearing. The air was sweet, like honeysuckle. There was a cool breeze that took the sweat off my head and made me feel happier than I could remember. On the top of a hill was a house that we made towards.
“This is my home. I expect mamma and granna can find you something to stop that growling I’ve been listening to for the last hour.”
Around the house was a ring of mushrooms, close enough that the mushroom lids almost touched. I remembered my daddy saying that if I saw something like that, I should skedaddle. My stomach wasn’t in any mood to hold to that notion. I stepped on the porch and heard chiming, like a church that was over in the next hill. I looked for it and saw some pieces of glass tied to a string, playing in the wind. It was the prettiest sound I’d ever heard. It was a song I knew and for the life of me couldn’t recollect. There were footsteps behind me.
“Rose, did you bring home another stray?”
The voice behind me was like the glass song, pretty as a bluebird and sweet as a spring rain. I turned and saw a woman who could have been Rose’s sister, except for the laugh lines around her eyes and mouth. She had hair red as dawn that come near to her hips. She was wiping her hands on an apron. There was dirt on her dress and I knew she’d been in a garden.
“Momma, this here is Bo Ledbetter, on his way to St. Louis, or so he tells. I thought we could feed him before we send him on his way.” Rose looked sweet at me and it took my breath. Her ma looked me over.
“Can you do chores?”
“Yes’m. Whatever you got to do.”
She pointed with her thumb over her should to a shed where an axe sat next to a pile of medium sized logs.
“I don’t feed idlers. Get us wood for the stove and we’ll see what we can rustle up for you. That suit you?”
It took me about an hour to get the wood down. As I finished bringing the last of the wood over it struck me that I’d seen a pool a bit behind the shed. I went down to wash the sweat and dirt off. I felt much better coming out, until I couldn’t find my clothes. Instead, where I’d left them, was a bundle. Somehow, I knew I weren’t there by my lonesome. Just as the thought come to me, there was a little rustle in a privet bush a skip or two away. Rose was watchin’, my bones told me.
I walked over naked as the truth and opened them up. Inside was a man’s flannel shirt, a little big for me, but it wore good. There was also a pair of trousers that fit me better. I pulled on my shoes, which to my woe had not been taken, and walked back to the house. I heard Rose whisper and then she was walkin’ next to me.
“You watch me get dressed?”
Rose watched me for a second, her eyes lookin’ in me, as familiar with me as I was. And I felt I knew her right back. She smiled at me like honeysuckle blooming and took my hand as we headed for her house.
The aroma of biscuits and taters wrapped around me and walked me in the house like a mother leading a child by the hand. Rose and her momma looked at me and smiled. In the corner an older woman worked a loom, not paying me a bit of mind. In the window ledge behind her was a bunch of herbs growing. Presently she looked my way.
“This the lumberjack what tried to walk off with Sadie?” Her voice was flint, but her eyes were playful.
“Best have him sit down and eat, then.”
Let me tell you that were one of the best meals I ever had. Biscuits with apple butter, fried onions and taters, washed down with goat milk. I had two full plates and argued with my stomach over having a third. The ladies had already finished and were over in the corner, Rose and her mamma sitting on the floor around her granna, who was sitting in her rocker and occasionally looking at me. Rose got up and walked over.
“Did you enjoy your meal?”
“Better than stringy rabbit on a spit. Can’t recollect last time I ate so good.”
“We been talking. We need someone to help out for the season. We can’t pay but a few coins a month. You interested?”
It didn’t take me longer than a scratch on my chin to say yes. My life became real steady for a while. So steady that as one season turned to the next I kept on finding work to do and reasons to stay.
During the days I’d build sheds or fix the house or plant or reap. I’d see Rose come by me doing her chores, and I’d hew a little harder, dig a little deeper. We’d work together, smellin’ each other, and both get a bit more flushed. We’d take our meals, and our hands would find a reason to touch under the table. All the while we got closer; I kept thinkin’ it would wither someway. I knew that come from my own ways comin’ up. What really got me sweating was the ways Rose had me feeling. She was as nice to me as a cool breeze on a dog day. The way I was feelin’ for her was butterfly light one clock tick, then the next I’d be scared knowin’ someone had my heart that easy. Some nights, trying to sort myself out, I couldn’t sleep easy. I felt like I had a gravel comforter under me.
Most evenings I’d listen to Rose sing whilst her momma played a zither and her granna played a psaltery. Prettier music I never heard in any church and the songs they sung were full of heat and life. Songs about the woods, about men and women with all sorts of unusual ways about ‘em. Songs about lovers proving themselves with questions and quests. I felt them as real as if they were in front of me. Her grandma knew more tales than trees have leaves.
Rose’s mamma knew more about plants than anyone I’d ever met. Rose and I would follow her into the woods as she looked for ginseng or truffles or other roots. She taught me which plants would heal and which would harm. She taught me how to watch animals and birds to know what the weather would do the next day. Rose’s granna taught me a lot too. She could take a set of playing cards and tell me more about myself than I thought anyone knew. She knew more about my ma and pa and brothers than I ever told anyone. She sewed me up some right nice shirts and pants, using bits and pieces of whatever fabric turned up.
One day we was sitting on the porch watching a real pretty sunset. I said “I wish I could put that sunset in my pocket and keep it to look at whenever I got cold and lonely.” She looked at me real deep for a moment and said: “There are the things we wish for, and the things we have no idea we were wishing for. It’s those things that come and haunt us in our dreams.” I didn’t know then what she meant. It was a few months later that I learned to see her meaning.
Those times I wasn’t working or spending time with Rose’s mamma and granna I spent with Rose. We walked and talked. Mainly it was me talking about what a good mamma and granna she had. My feelings for Rose grew too during all this time. Every night we slept pallet next to pallet. I’d listen to her breathe or turn over and my heart told me this was where I was supposed to be. My head, though, my head still wanted to get to St. Louis. And another part of my head was just plain scared about Rose and the hold she had on me. I spun like an elm seed fallin’ to ground. I figured I’d talk to Rose, ‘bout St Louis, anyway. I just didn’t know how to talk about the ways I felt for her.
We made our way to the edge of the pond, where she’d left that change of clothes for me once. I started talkin’ ‘bout the JP Pearson catalog and the kind of place I figured St. Louis must be. With all I’d learned here, I told her, I knew I’d make me good money, more than just a few coins a months. I even heard myself, to my terror and delight, say she might think about comin’ along. Rose listened to me, to what I was thinking. When I finished, she drew her knees up under her chin and watched the water for a long while.
“I druther you stay than I go. There’s nothing in St. Louis that I want – nothing that would mean more to me than what I have here.”
“You’d have my word I’d try to make it back to you. Isn’t that worth something?”
The word stung me like a hornet and hung round my head like cold dew.
“If I ain’t worthy of you in this here and now, then when will I be? Don’t you leave me, Bo Ledbetter. I won’t ever give up lookin’ for you. And grief be upon them what might stand in my way.”
She stood up suddenly and disappeared into the woods.
I walked back to the house thinking about Rose, about staying or going, about what I wanted.
That night dinner didn’t have the sort of talk I was used to. After dinner I went onto the porch to catch the last rays of sunset and Rose’s mamma joined me.
“Rose wants you to stay. She feels real deep for you.” She paused. “There ain’t nothing for you anywhere but here.”
“I feel deep for her too.’ I waited for the words to clear my throat. “But St. Louis’s got me reeled like a catfish.”
“You could find a place here. You made yourself real useful. Stay a while until the weather warms up. Stay until you get your head clear.”
“If I don’t reach St. Louis now, somethin’ tells me I never will. I can always come back. I’m set on this.”
Rose’s mamma looked at me like a bad fork on a hard road.
“You might not be able to find us again. We’re – far back.”
“If I can get to St. Louis, I can get back to here.”
She looked back toward the cabin, then stared at me.
“When are you thinking of going?”
“Maybe I oughta get at first light. It won’t get any easier for Rose or me the longer I put it off.”
That morning, before light touched the hills, I put together what little I had and lit out. Rose’s mamma and her grandma met me at the edge of the clearing.
“We have a way for you to go.” Rose’s grandma said. “It’ll save you a long walk.”
They led me a different way than Rose and I came, further up into the hills. In the darkness I could see a cabin or some such. It looked like just the ivy around it held it up.
“This is a special place,’ Rose’s mamma said, ‘we want to show it to you before you go.”
We came onto the porch. Rose’s mamma and grandma started to speak together, real soft. It was like a prayer, but it made me feel chilled and the hairs on my neck stood up. As we came into the single room, Rose’s grandma lit a candle. The room was empty. All the same, the shadows the candle cast seemed to reach out to me, to the women with me.
“We think you should stay here for a spell until you clear your head.” Rose’s mamma said this with love and with sadness I wasn’t used to.
Rose’s grandma spread her hands and said something in a tongue I’d never heard.
I felt something, bit by bit. I felt myself being pulled into the wall, into the shadows on the wall. Rose’s mamma and grandma seemed to fade and become hazy. I struggled to get out, but I couldn’t pull away from the cedar. I couldn’t come away from the wall.
“You’ll be safe here.” Rose’s granna said.
I tried to say something but my voice came out as a flicker of shadow. The women left, left me alone with the other shadows on the wall.
So that’s where I am now; that’s why Rose could never find me. In the time I been here, she’s never found me. Maybe some time, if you find yourself back in hills you never thought you’d find your way to, you might find this cabin.
Just don’t light the candle.