Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Chalice Run of Houston County

      As is my daily practice, I took my morning cup of coffee outside to enjoy the daybreak over the ridges and valleys that grace the view from my southern deck.  That rebellious, disorganized part of my frontal lobe pulled two words out of the vast emptiness of my misfiring synapses, "Chalice Run."  The groggy left cranial hemisphere that shelters my curiosity chimed in with, "Okay, I know what a chalice is, but how does that fit with run?"  Memories from my right quadrant began sharing images of my stays in Houston County, Tennessee, and its quaint Church fish-fries, beautiful hills, crystalline waterways, and the simple, but reverent hill-people who live off the land.  About that time the stimulant reached that half dozen brain cells I use when writing, and The Chalice Run of Houston County was born.  I hope you enjoy it.

     The Chalice Run is an oddity unique to the people of Houston County.  No one knows or truly remembers when or why it started.  Some of the oldest families in the hills believe it is somehow related to the Orthodox Church celebration of the Epiphany, others say it was probably some school yard dare that grew too big for its britches, but most of the mountain folk believe its roots lie deep in the cultural practice of moonshining and revenuer evading.  It is without question the most anticipated early summer event in the western reaches of the Tennessee Appalachians: a barefoot marathon over steep craggy ridges and through the densest hollows. The Run boasts of no age limit, but the competitors are rarely older than 22 or younger than 15.  It marks a region wide celebration where no one is left uninvited and everyone participates. 
      The tractor lanes, cow paths and game trails that comprise the course are lined with men and boys spared momentarily from their day’s labors of rural subsistence.  Mothers, wives, betrothed and unattached girls make the long walk to cheer the finishers from the vantages of Ankle Ridge and the shoals of the Yellow Creek.       Village churchyards throughout the county are lined with rough hewn, makeshift tables covered in bed linens and garnished with varying bowls of potato salad, baked beans, corn chow-chow and pitchers of sweet tea.  On the lawns, picnic blankets lay in the shade of oak, maple and poplar trees; cattail reeds are burned to chase the mosquitoes and green flies; and the fence lines sport rows of propane fired fish fryers and charcoal grills, spewing the indigenous aromatics of country festivity.  Along the race route, strategically positioned coolers are attended by elderly chaperones dispensing a choice of Mason jars of spring water, icy cans of store-bought Mountain Dew, and for those more bent on revelry than racing, plastic cups of the local White Lightning.  The race begins at daybreak, but the music, dancing and bonfires will last until the wee hours of the following morning.
      Spectators all across the hills follow the race’s progression by listening to the distant hoots and hollers as groups of runners pass each marker stone on their way to finish line.

    Ezekiel knew he was not the fastest sprinter in the county, and he knew he had tough competition.  He had spent weeks practicing a deliberate routine of pace-sprint-pace to a degree of perfection that almost promised the coveted cup waiting in the waist deep water of the creek.  He was running in third place, but every time he pushed harder, Bo and Geek, the two leaders, quickened their stride, expending precious energy that they would eventually need to tackle the steep ridges this side of the Yellow Creek Basin.  Each time he saw their pace slacken, Zek would run up long enough for them to see him approaching and react with yet another ill-timed sprint.
     Donella June stood on the creek bank listening to the melodic tinkle of the current hitting the rocks and the whispered swoosh of the eddies and backwater.  The night before she had burned the oil lamp until the moon began to set, reading 1st Corinthians and praying silently for Divine intervention.  The prize of a calf and a dozen laying hens would give her and Ezekiel a much needed start.  The Sheriff had already given them the okay to homestead the abandoned Noughty place.  The eggs and milk from the livestock and the crop from the bushel of seed corn would yield precious money from the flatland tourists next summer.  That ceremonial stoneware jug of moonshine could be stowed in the root cellar for company and routinely monitored against her man’s genetic propensity.  Almost no one knew how important it was to Donella for Zek to win.
     The only other person in the basin that knew Donella’s secret was Bessy.  Donella had let slip that her period was late, and that led to the teary confession of her sin of fornication.  Zek knew nothing; the news of his accidental paternity would have to wait for the outcome of the Run.

     From high on the ridge, a whoop, whoop, whoop signified the runners were in the final leg of the contest; Donella studied the yells, laughter and jeers trying to discern the order of the lead runners.  With a certainty that only devout Faith can provide, she knew her man was somewhere near the lead, but she also knew that spry little Geek would be there too. 
     Geek was the younger brother of Maurice Bower.  Everyone knew Maurice as Tripper, a cultivator of Houston County’s best cannabis and the most daring hooch transporter in all of Tennessee.  Donella and Tripper had courted during her fourteenth year and it was once presumed they would be married, but Donella quit Tripper for better prospects with Ezekiel Thompson.  Tripper never forgave her and held a well-known grudge against his rival.  That is the reason for her dread that Geek might still be in contention for the Chalice.  It would not be unexpected that Tripper could sabotage the race in the spirit of a traditional mountain feud.  Revenge and grudges are deep rooted in the culture of these backwoods.

     As the grade steepened, Bo and Geek slowed their pace and their breathing grew heavy and labored.  Lagging by no more than 100 feet, Zek maintained his practiced gait that step-by-step shortened the distance between him and his overly confident rivals.  At the crest of Ankle Ridge, the smell of the water below revitalized all three runners, but the two leaders were too spent to find their needed second wind.  As they began the treacherous descent, the runners were three abreast.  A cheer went up from the crowd on either side of the hollow so loud that it muffled the report of a camouflaged rifle shot. 
     Bo stumbled and fell in the loose rocky soil.  Unable to regain footing, he rolled most of thirty yards until his momentum was stopped by a centenarian oak.  The impact of his body silenced the crowd long enough that the second round from the hidden marksman reverberated through the hollow.  No one gave a moment’s concern over Bo’s fall or the sound from the gun.  Hunting is not a seasonal sport in these hills, but a necessity of life and the defeated runner seemed content to rest where he fell.  Gunfire was rarely given much attention and the errant bullet from the second shot buried itself in the soft clay of the mountain, no one but Zek understood the potential consequence of Bo’s collapse and the echoed pop of the deer rifle.
     Ezekiel’s legs still had life in them; his dash down the steep grade was punctuated by purposefully sporadic directional changes.  Although uncertain that someone might be gunning for him, he knew that something nefarious awaited the end of the Run.

     Geek was fatigued to the point that his every step threatened to upend him into a downward roll.  Still in contention, Tripper’s baby brother struggled to keep pace with the chaotic progression of his co-leader.  One misstep and his left foot lost traction.  Geek bounced his butt on a hard outcropping evoking a loud execration against God, Earth and Ezekiel before rebounding to his weakened trot. 

     The crowd cheered; no one heard the third shot.
     Zek leapt from a thick deadfall to the safety of the sandy creek bed and dove head first under the water.  Without surfacing for a needed breath, he scoured the sand and rocks for nearly twenty feet in the current before finding the pitted pewter cup that signified victory.
     Raising the Chalice above his head, Ezekiel stood from the water and screamed, “Where you at, you son-of-a-bitch!  I won!  What are you gonna do, shoot me now?”
     A gasping hush fell over the crowd as whispers of surprise and revelation at the rifle shots spread up and down the hollow.  The crowd scanned the trees in search of the armed culprit.

     A female voice cried, “Bo’s been kill’t!”
     An air of excitement overcame all as everyone suddenly declared they had heard all of the shots, and shouted incoordinated vectors of their origination.  Several men rallied their comrades and began to assemble an armed posse.  Women and children bawled in startled alarm and wept in despondent admonitions of caution.  Emotions along the hillsides rose to a riotous crescendo.

      Donella shrieked in terror at the defiance of her beloved.  Pushing her way through the crowd, she ran into the water hoping her presence would shield Zek from the wrath of her rejected beau.  “No!  Tripper don’t shoot, please!”  Her arms grappled Zek’s head and she pulled his body down into the clear current, kissing his lips in desperate passion.
      A silent angry glare from Geek on the bank caught both of their attention.  Zek jumped from the water causing the sour loser to lurch in reaction.  “Where’s your brother, boy?”  
     Geek backed slowly towards the safety of the wooded grade.  “Come back here you yellow bastard.”

     Donella seized Zek’s hand, “Hush, honey.”  Her gentle hand tugged at his arm; Zek turned to face his love.  “We’s gonna have us a baby.”  Donella’s voice cracked in a combination of fear, pride and love.  “Please don’t be hateful to Maurice; I be needing you.  He gots nuthin’.  We’s got us a house, a cow, chickens and now, youz and me are gonna have a baby.”
     Zek lifted Donella to her feet and held her tight against his chest.  “You oughta toll me this afore the Run, Doni.” 
     They kissed.
     “She didn’t have no need t’ tell ya afore now.  You had dis race t’ ponder,” a voice came from the far creek bank.  “I knew’s you wuz gonna win.  Now youz gonna be a family and none of y’all got no more worries.” 

     Bessie waded into the water and joined their embrace.  “You wuz gonna win, Zek, and that’s that.  I weren’t ne’va gonna have it no other way.”

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ne Quis Dubitet de Viridi Fontis

Lest anyone doubt the Spring Green... 

Last week I watched with my annual awe at the rebirth of these forested hills; but Mother Nature is a fickle bitch.  She unleashed a harsh mid-April snowstorm on Western North Carolina with frigid winds and icy temperatures bent on staving the arrival of Spring.  

The Great Smoky Mountains took the last assault from the far north in stride and wore their dusting of powdered sugar with more pride than disdain.  The weather prognosticators had warned of the approaching front; gardeners and nursery workers throughout the region scurried to protect the tender spring blooms, potted ornamentals and starter vegetables.  The orchard tenders, those guardians of our delicious Autumn fruit, irrigated and fanned the tiny pink and purple flowers hoping with worry and dread that there would be no recurrence of the "year of no apples."  The feral critters of the woods took to their burrows and lairs; the flocks of avian songsters found refuse from the bitter winds in the eaves of rustic barns and in sheltered rocky crags; the domestic cattle, chickens, turkeys, donkeys and geese were all stowed with love by their kind custodian, the farmer.  Quaint chimneys exhaled aromatic wisps while the townsfolk sipped mugs of hot cocoa or tea.  Higher in the hills and deeper in the forest the scene would have been similar, but the sipping would be from Mason jars and the beverage, White Lightning.

It seemed as all Haywood County was hunkered down for this last winter storm.

As is typical for a late season storm, it blew in and blew out in less than 24 hours.  By late afternoon of the day after, nowhere except on the faraway highest peaks was there any signs of snow, ice or the recent incursion by Old Man Winter.  The storm was gone and the energy of the mountains once again turned to the greening of Spring.

From the front deck of my house, in the winter, while the trees are barren, I can see, far below, the county road that accesses the private lane up to this secluded ridge.  As the season warms and the deciduous dendritic fingers push new tendrils out, the road becomes obscured to my view; it was a reversal in this annual refashioning that preempted my attention as I sipped my morning coffee yesterday, enjoying the early morning vista.  I heard a distant engine and watched as one of the farm hands arrived at work.  It was a troubling revelation that I could once again see approaching vehicles.  In preparation for our recent freeze, it seems no one had warned our arboreal neighbors.  The tender new leaves on the highest branches, those harbingers of the verdant spring, now drooped like the dry brown tears of a mourning mother.  Her energy spent on the new growth wasted, the grandmotherly hemlock that resides near the front of my home, now has a sad and defeated look that touches me deep in my soul.

I don't know if these trees will attempt resuscitate the vestiges of their recent proud array or shed them to make room for some as yet unborn buds.  Mother Nature, in her often aloof and harsh benevolence, will nurture her children with a divine lenity that no mere mortal could ever understand.  As an example, many of her less statuesque forest stock were shielded by their altitudinous parents and their new growth is still intact.  Yes, the seasonal change has arrived in these mountains, and even in light of our late winter storm, let no one doubt the Spring Green.  It is a wondrous time to live in the Smokys.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A prosaic ode to an unscratched itch

Did you ever have an itch that just could not be reached?
Such an irritant is an inhumane torture; permeated with insatiable needs and impossible relief.  I have known some likewise tormented people to try unnatural contortions and disjointed bodily positions in an attempt to calm their exigent urges.  Some are so hopeless, I suppose, that they choose unlikely albeit convenient contrivances in the desperate hope that a surrogate might provide their needed succor.  Those expedient remedies seldom provide anything more than the most fleeting respite from the hell of a needed touch left too distant from the unattended cravings.  I know there are some that try to ignore their duress, hoping in vain that the feelings will subside with time, and their body might once again return to the stasis of pre-vexation. 

None of these remedies ever worked for me; no repositioning, no ersatz balm in costumed disguise, no duration of abided misery; my torture continues.  There is no substitute for my much needed scratch, nor will time heal my insatiate desires, for I am plagued with a constant barrage of mnemonics that keeps my provocation inflamed and still just out of reach.  

Have you ever had an itch like that?  One you wished beyond all hope you could scratch and yet know that you never will. 

Yes, I knew an unrequited love, too. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In Primo Vere: The song birds have arrived in the mountains

The song birds have arrived in the mountains!  

I know the lower elevations have long since donned their coats of veridis to welcome the onset of renovamen,but high in these peaks the arboreal blossoms have only begun to open.  And I celebrate the arrival of their new deciduous growth.

Springtime in the Smoky Mountains is a glorious season of renewal and rejuvenation for both the native flora and fauna.  I greet this annual metamorphosis with excited anticipation.  The frigid winter has at last loosed its grasp on my beloved gloriosa ipsum and I will cherish the proximate opportunity to open the long sealed windows and doors and refresh the stale and spent atmosphere that pervades my home and office.

My predawn, alfresco coffee was accompanied not only by the serenade of the ever-punctual roosters, lowing cattle and the eerie fog-horn bray of my neighbor's mule, but this morning the air was filled with sweet harmonic melodies from a newly arrived avian chorus seated on the hillside amphitheater enveloping the north side of my vista.  The glitter of the bespeckled bluffs across the valley did not hold my attention as dawn broke the Carolina sky, instead it was a winter's requiem and the overture of the anticipated spring that lifted my spirits past the heavy lethargy of my abbreviated slumbers and jump-started the electric spark within my synapses.  As the haze of sleep lifted, my mind began stringing words and phrases together.  I felt a compulsion to find some way paint these new hues of green with words and share my delight at their awaited emergence.  From the crest of the highest ridges to the floor of every hollow, the trees reach their tiny fingers of soft pea-green, subtle olive and vibrant emerald toward the warming sun.  This is the annual debut of new life atop this forest of hemlocks, walnuts, oaks, poplar and maples.  I must find those words.  

Spring has sprung and it is wondrous.  The squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, groundhogs and turkeys have all brought their new scions out to explore the world and learn the perilous rules of survival.  I am sure the bears, elk and deer have done the same, but I am not a witness to the results of their mating.  This is a time and place everyone should experience.  I want to find those magic words that could have you taste the crisp clean morning air of the Smokys; to enable you to hear the newest movement of Nature's ever-evolving symphony; to see this changing that literally evolves minute by minute.  This miracle is region-wide;  I live deep in the woods and high on a mountain, but I can still see down below o'er the top of the still emerging canopy, where the yards and lawns are cultivated with the best of civilized intentions and neighborly competitive skills. There, the ornamental pear trees and dogwoods are proudly holding their noble white heads high above the new blooms of crocus, tulips and daffodils in beds carefully delineated by the razor edges of manicured fescue.  Spring has sprung in the Smoky Mountains and it is indeed wondrous.

I am not certain, but I am willing to gamble that these mountains have suffered their last killing frost of the year, so it is time that I, too, venture down the winding switch-back and up the busy four-lane into town.  There I will select this year's variety of vegetables for my garden to will nourish my body and adorn my table throughout the warmer months.  My spring chores will not end there:  The dining area on the rear deck must be scrubbed and the grill de-winterized.  I must energize the outlets for my computer and fan in the outdoor office.  My hoses can be brought out of the safety of warmth and shelter; my hummingbird feeders need filled, herbs potted and the butterfly garden must be fertilized, pruned and weeded.  Yes, spring has arrived at last even in these mountains.  

O vere gloriosum, oh, glorious spring; et ego recipiam vos, I welcome you!

Friday, April 11, 2014

A writer is, after all, a lurid voyeur

     There is a sleepy hamlet several miles across the valley from my mountain lair.  This morning as I sipped my coffee in the first few minutes of daylight, I thought what wondrous stories must lie in those simple cottages and tiny abodes.  A tourist to these mountains might stand in awe at the innocent beauty of that distant community with its churches, backyards, and quaint porches, but I am a writer, and I see those opaque real life images as fodder for my next story.
     Much of life is admittedly mundane with scarce moments of real drama, humor, terror, evil and pain, yet it is these ignoble human instincts that drive fiction.  Somewhere in that congregation of modest dwellings there is a child crying, hungry for breakfast not yet served by an inattentive parent, a spouse deep in the degradation and self-loathing of infidelity, a couple enrapt in the passion of their new marriage ignorant of what lies ahead in the near future, another couple in utter desperation for the lack of financial stability, one woman hagridden with illogical hatred, and a hapless man bedeviled with impossible lust.  But what makes me smile with anticipation is that within each of these malefic scenarios there are also those succulent yet purely human subtleties of maleficence, self-deceit, murderous urges, ironic twists, plots of sweet revenge, spiritual absolution, and apocalyptic revelation.  What moral should I weave into the decrepit life of my next prosaic protagonist?  For what good is a story that doesn't teach something useful?  What would you learn?
    Across the valley, amid the worker ants scurrying off to their appointed labors, amid the queen ants tending to their nest, amid the nits learning their place within the colony, there lies a thousand stories waiting to be told.  A writer is, after all, a lurid voyeur, obsessed with studying you, your conversations, motives, emotions, interactions and idiosyncrasies.  I am watching you.
     You, my reader, my friend, my colleague, I count each of you as yet another distant villager, and you, or at least a part of you, are destined to be my next character.  Beware and cherish what you have, because I can assure you that the life you live is far less exciting and perilous than the life I have planned for you.
     Yes, there is a picturesque village across the valley from my home pitched high on this mountain, and I am watching...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A cheap substitute and a broken-hearted wino

     A country song about a broken-hearted wino failing to stay sober broke the peace of a deep slumber.  Eyes, not yet rested, looked at the dancing phone while the mind that many considered intellectual, wondered again why he had wasted money on a ring tone and why he had picked that song.  It was her doing.
     Phone calls at 3 a.m. rarely portend good news; the doctor sat motionless as the Nashville wannabe finished his verse of greater temptations and the phone went silent.  He carefully slid his arm out from beneath his wife's young body and patted the curve of her hips with a satisfaction that can only be achieved by a 20 year age difference.  He kissed the top of her head, turned and dropped his feet into the moccasins he used as house slippers.   
     The initial attempt to stand was met with angry resistance from the knee that had ended the weekends of tennis at the club, but a second, more determined effort, steadied his frame over the weakened and painful joint.  The path to the toilet was well known from frequent nighttime visits; the bedroom was devoid of all light save the blinking LED of the unattended phone.  Using the soft blue beacon as a guide, he reached too hastily and knocked his glasses into the crevice between the mattress and nightstand.  This meant another agonal encounter with his ACL before the call could be checked or the pressure in the bladder abated.
    The bathroom door closed silently with a slow deliberate release of the lever; only in this seclusion did he risk light.  His new bride insisted on total darkness in the bedroom, even to the exclusion of an illuminated alarm clock.  The flood of light stabbed at his retinas as he attempted to pee with his eyelids nearly closed.  He would ordinarily address the urges brought on by his enlarged prostate without turning the lights on; this of course risked Tonya's wrath incited by even the smallest droplets gone askew; in the harsh florescent light he realized how poor his aim really had become.  Using a throw rug, he foot-mopped the floor.
    Pausing to examine his aging torso in the mirror, he thought again of his youthful trophy asleep in the next room.  He slid open the phone and as he checked the number from the missed call; the drunken troubadour began to sing again; it was from the same number, and from an old Vancouver area code.
   "Doctor Martin, this is Constable Ewen from Vancouver."
    An odd dread washed over him as he thought of his last visit to the Wet Coast: the trip when his first wife died.
    "Constable Ewen, yes, I remember you from before.  What can I do for you?"
    "I am sorry for calling so late, but I thought you would like to know as soon as possible.  We've found Patty; she is alive and well.  She asked me to tell you that she wants to come home."

     In a collage of images, he saw his depression, his drinking, the pretty teaching assistant that began to help in the classes, their first kiss, the courtship, the pomp of the wedding, the three months of publicly envied passion, and the realization that sometimes a replacement is nothing more than a cheap substitute.  He opened the bathroom door and chased the darkness from the bedroom.