by Jonathan May
He looked down from Chinkapin Hill to the land of his childhood spread out below. Not that the hill was high, but the land around it was flat enough that he appeared to be higher than he was. The view had changed since the last time had climbed the hill, way back in his middle teens. A field for grazing and a stand of pines planted for harvest had replaced the old cotton fields where he could recall bent-backed black men and women dragging their large sacks along as they picked a row. In the distance he could see the willows bordering Blackberry Creek. Once he had followed the creek all the way down to where it emptied into the Black Warrior River. A weathered double-wide stood where the old tin cotton gin used to be, that grand noisy playhouse for him and his local buddies when he was young. Walking past he had greeted the elderly couple sitting out front. Just taking a walk down memory lane, he had told them.
He had loved Chinkapin when he was a boy. He had once thought the low hill might have been the southwestern tail end of the Appalachians, but in later life he had learned that it was probably not but rather the worn-down remains of an even older geological event. This was the first time he had walked up the old path since his move back to Pickens.
The old railroad that used to run through Pickens had curved slightly to the north just past the gin house. The trains stopped running in the late 1950s, and not long after the tracks themselves had been taken up. No more walking the tracks and playing on the boxcars and flatcars parked at the siding east of the depot and no more placing pennies on the tracks to be run over and squashed flat. He was too old for that sort of behavior these days, but he pitied any local boys who would never have the pleasure.
Most of the old stores were gone now. Pickens had pretty much dried up after the Second World War when people could get cars and drive further for shopping needs. He could barely make out his old family house where he had moved back a month ago. His older brother had lived it in all these years and kept it up, but Frank had died a year before. He had decided to move home after he retired from teaching Comparative Literature at Columbia College. If Alice had lived they might have stayed in the North for she would not have wished to move to Alabama, but she had died two years before Frank.
How long had it actually been since he had followed the rude path up Chinkapin? It was the summer after he finished the tenth grade. The pleasures and rigors of his junior and senior years had kept him too busy.
The path continued on across the hill, and this time he followed it further than he remembered ever doing so. Barely a path, and if you weren’t looking for a path you’d have not recognized it as being one. Here and there a red clay bank bordered the path, suggesting that the path was old and once much-used. Lots of plum trees. He’d have to remember that come spring. Sassafras. He recalled as a child digging up sassafras roots and taking them home and asking his mother to boil them up for sassafras tea. Why? Something he had read? The taste came back to his mind. Somehow a little wild and a little medicinal.
In a wilderness of kudzu thriving in the late summer heat stood the remnant of an old log house. Mildly curious he felt his way through the vines to the doorway, the door itself having fallen years before. This must have been the “Old Man’s house” he recalled hearing about as a child. Not a slave cabin, although there were a few around. The size and the sturdy log construction argued against its being a sharecropper cabin. Inside there were still a few odd pieces of furniture, dusty but still sturdy. The vines enclosing the exterior had not so far taken over the inside: it liked the sun. The flooring sagged in the corner of the main room, but on the whole it seemed intact. Lying by the empty fireplace was an old green Coca-Cola bottle, the small ones he remembered from the 1950s. He had sold many for a nickel in his father’s store. He picked it up. No chips or cracks. Dirty, but that could be cleaned off. Alice would have loved it.
A voice. “Jim Mobely, you’ve come back to see us.”
He felt something lightly touch his left shoulder. He looked around. No one.
No one, but was the quality of the kudzu-filtered light just a little denser there? Greener, perhaps, or just darker.
“Hello?” he said.
A silence. Then a whisper.
“We didn’t think you would ever be up here again.”
“I didn’t know I’d ever been here before.”
The whisper. “A long time . . .”
* * *
You were just a boy then. Life was fresh. Something in you called out to us, and we came. You had pushed your way through the kudzu in the doorway and stood there in the green light bold and unafraid. We touched your mind gently, and you were still unafraid. Although we had never entered the mind of someone before, you seemed to welcome us in.
I don’t remember that.
There are reasons. You don’t want to remember. It is probably best that you don’t remember.
Who are you? Are there more than one?
A hard question to answer, I’m not sure we know anymore. But once we were two. Lula and Clyde.
You feel so young.
Once we were. We were only sixteen when we died. You don’t know this, but you are our kin.
This is the house of the Old One. When your many-times-great grandfather James Wilton moved to Alabama before it was a state, before the original inhabitants were driven out, the Old One already lived here. James wanted to set up a trading post in the area that became the old town of Erie down on the river, and he became friend and partner with the Old One. That’s what people always called him. He was Choctaw but lived apart from most of his tribe. A widower, the two children, a boy and a girl.
Wilton had brought his son Jimmy to the territory. No one around here remembered Jimmy’s mother, but women did die young in those days. Wilton’s son and the Old One’s daughter fell in love, and when she conceived a child both fathers welcomed the marriage. Their daughter Dicie was ancestor of both you and our Clyde. You are distant cousins.
Lula traces her line back to the Old One’s son, who married a slave girl owned by Wilton. He blessed the marriage and freed her from servitude, and the couple lived with his father in this very house. Lula too is cousin to you, Jim, and to Clyde. We are all connected by our history going back to that old Native American man.
Are you ghosts? A ghost?
We haven’t bothered to label what we are, and we are not certain we know exactly. But we are what has remained.
We were both alive, if barely, when they tossed us down in the well behind this cabin. Three of them. Buster Campion, Al Marston, Johnny King.
Names I can remember. They were a little older than I, and two of them all died in accidents before I finished high school. And Buster went missing. And I remember before that a boy named Clyde who went missing.
They were jealous, particularly Buster. We are not sure whether that jealously was focused on Lula or Clyde. But it seethed, it distorted, and when he secretly followed Clyde one day to this hilltop and saw him with Lula, jealously turned to rage. It probably took little effort to engage Al and Johnny. All you had to do in those days was scream Nigger-Lover.
They caught us in the act of love.
No, they did not rape. We were spared that. But they beat us. Each had an axe handle, and before they had finished our bones were broken. We were still alive when they tossed our bodies down into the well behind the house.
Were we conscious? Not as you might think of consciousness. But somehow we were knowing. We could not move, or barely, but we were lying together in a tangle of broken bones. Together forever. And after a while we died, but something of us remained, blended together.
But we were already blended together, by our history and our family heritage. And it may be that the blending was helped by our mutual many-times-great grandfather being a Choctaw. But something else was at work.
We were not alone.
This hill is old, worn down by time, like the Appalachians that stretch away to the northeast all the way up the eastern side of this land. The chain is older than those fledglings the Rockies, and who can tell what lies deep beneath, blended with the old earth so that today’s instruments cannot tell where one things ends and another begins. And as time wears away the ancient covering, that which is beneath is closer to the surface. It has slept for what passes for eternity, but sleeping things do wake, and so it does from time to time.
Or does it dream? Was it a dream that enveloped us in the deep well? With something so old, so not-us, can we make a distinction? Good? Evil? Can we make a distinction? Whatever it is seems beyond such categories.
But something stirred. Did we stir it? Was the dream already there and did we merely fall into it? It somehow . . . noticed . . . us. And dreamed us into one.
Were we its toy? We think not. Something that old does not play. But observe? That may be it. We seemed to be something new, human beings, something that had never before come to its attention, if attention is the word. Perhaps just a blip in its dream.
And as dreams do, we gradually faded from anything resembling attention.
But we remained, together, on this hillside. Because this house had become our house, we could enter here. The house, as you see, was sturdy. Occasionally people would pass by or even peek into the house, but somehow we were able to create a sense of unease that kept them from coming back. And so our home persisted, as did we.
And our memory of the three who threw us into that well also persisted. Not as pain or even as hate, but as an irritation that had to be scratched.
Their deaths were not accidents. We did that. With your help, of course.
You were our vessel. We remained, but we could not leave this hill. Until you allowed us into your soul and carried us with you, not knowing.
Buster was the leader. He had been friends with Clyde, but when Clyde fell in love with Lula, he had no more time for Buster. We don’t know whether it was the love itself or that the love was a young black woman that was the worst problem for Buster, once he became aware of it.
We had been meeting at the cabin. A long time back it had belonged to Lula’s grandparents. After they died Lula’s mother moved herself and child to a cabin nearer the town. We had met one day when Clyde was following the old path, just as you later did. Lula was inside looking through the old discarded furnishings for anything of value worth taking back to her home, where she still lived with her mother. Clyde heard her singing and called out. And when Lula looked out he saw that not only her voice was pretty.
In those days a white boy and a black girl could not be seen together. Have things changed much now? We hope so. But we had the kudzu-enclosed cabin for refuge from the world. Or so we thought.
We did not know that Buster had followed Clyde one day. He did not make himself known then. Not until he had company and reinforcements. But Al Marston and Johnny King were easy to persuade to join in. Somehow men like Buster can always find followers.
And they set upon us and beat us and left us for dead. And we died, although not all the way.
We persisted, and we did not plan. Until you wandered upon us.
I don’t remember any of this.
Nor should you.
We looked into your mind and saw that you knew the three boys. That you too had learned to distrust all of them. We slipped into your mind and hitched a ride. We filled a space within, and we sat there quietly and waited.
First there was Al. You do not remember this, but you and he were standing by the train tracks waiting to cross over to the old cotton gin where you both wanted to see if you could get weekend work. We grabbed you and gave Al Marston a quick shove, directly into the side of the passing train. Nobody saw, and we took the memory from you and sent you home with no thought of going to the gin house that day. You went with your folks to his funeral, one with a closed coffin because of his mangled body.
And then we waited.
You remember following Blackberry Creek all the way down to the river. You remember the long walk back home. What you don’t remember is what happened there. Johnny, all by himself, fishing pole in hand, pushing a skiff out into the river.
“Want to go fishing?” he called.
You didn’t want to, but we said yes.
Johnny paddled the boat upriver to a fishing spot he liked. He lay the paddle down and picked up his fishing pole and stabbed the hook through a squiggling worm. You quietly picked up the paddle and shoved him into the water. He came up sputtering but thought it was a joke but one he would likely thrash you for. Until you kept pushing him away from the skiff and holding him down in the water. His surprise likely was as important as the paddle in making him drown, for drown he soon did. When he no longer struggled we had you paddle to the bank and get out. You pushed the boat back into the river, and everybody later thought that John had had an unfortunate accident while fishing. You walked back downriver to the mouth of Blackberry Creek and followed it back home to Pickens. You remembered the walk, you remembered sitting on the bank and watching the river flow by, and you remembered nothing else. You didn’t even remember that you didn’t remember.
And again we waited.
On the old plantation east of where you grew up there was an old dug well with a wooden cover. One day when you and Buster happened to be together you suggested taking a look at the well. After he had pulled the cover back, the two of you stood there looking down. No water now, for the ground water level of this area had dropped. One slight push and over Buster went. He wasn’t killed outright, but his legs seemed broken. He was crying out in fear.
And we spoke through you. “This is for Lula and Clyde.”
There were bricks lying about, the remains of the old well house. You picked them up one by one and pelted him until he hushed, and you pelted min more until you could not even see his body. You kicked at the edges of the well and dislodged some of the dirt to fall and cover the bricks over his body. And your mind now remembers that he was never found. He came from a troubled home and was thought to have run away.
The well seemed fitting. And there was nothing underneath, or nothing that was moved, to dream him into a continued existence.
We did bring you back to this hill, although that wasn’t necessary for us to leave you. But it seemed fitting. Just as the killing of the three boys seemed fitting.
Not that it was something that we in our calm existence planned or even wished for. But it seemed that something felt a disorder, a lack of balance, in the universe, and without plan or intent all of this took place to restore that balance. Like water running downhill to seek a calm pool.
And gradually that dream withdrew. That which slumbered returned to its deeper sleep.
And we were left as we are now, content in our slow existence, needing nothing, having each other, become one.
And from that dream we retained a glimmer of something. That great dreaming entity that stretched down the east side of this country has counterparts elsewhere. It seems that one, younger, more powerful, stretches from Alaska to the ends of Patagonia. There are others, younger and older, elsewhere on this planet. Or so the wisps in our mind seems to indicate.
Our dreamer has not awakened again. It slumbers on. We would not have imagined it had it not been for the dream that embraces us and keeps us here. But at times we sense a stirring, a hint of a move to a different level of sleep, and we wonder if it will dream again.
And we wonder if, in its dream, it will find other imbalances that it its slumbering way it is impelled to rectify.
And we wonder about those other entities that we seemed to sense about the world. Do they communicate? That seems too purposeful for what they do somehow. But does what affects one somehow affect the others? Might they one day act in concert?
We don’t know. That is not part of our dream.
How is it that I listen, if that is the word, to such a tale with such calmness? How is it that I will not remember all that occurred when I am awake?
We never intended to harm you, but to use you, and we never wanted any memory of that use to affect your waking mind. You are a good man, Jim, and we wanted that goodness to remain with you.
And so, when our use of you as a vessel was no longer necessary, we poured ourselves out of you, taking every trace with us.
And why did you waken me to this history of which I had no memory?
We liked you, Jim, and while we were happy together we wanted to feel your mind again. And now we will pour ourselves out of you again, taking all with us, except a feeling that you enjoyed your walk up Chinkapin Hill and wished to do so again.
For we do wish to enjoy your mind more and more.
* * *
A pleasant afternoon, he thought. A walk like this is good for me at my age. I’ll have to do this more often. The uphill climb, rest a bit at the old log cabin, an easier walk downhill.
This bottle. I’ll wash it out and set it on the window ledge over my kitchen sink. When the light passes through the green it will remind me of Alice and of my walk up Chinkapin Hill.
But I wonder how long it has been since this bottle was full.
But no matter. It is empty now.