If you misstep just six inches to your right, you will fall right into it. It swirls brightly and is fit only for trout to live in. If you do misstep, you will plunge up to your neck in the freezing water. Of all the swimming holes along Big Creek, those deep pockets of cold water children play in all summer; the Dark Hole is the loneliest one. No one wants to swim there.
She was pretty and delicate in a Melungeon way, lighter of skin than most of her relatives and shy like a white calf. Her eyes were large and sloe and dark. The light would glint off them in the darkness of the forest like the flick of a trout tail in the deepness of the creek.
Her black hair was long, wavy and hung down her back, when he first saw her.
When she first saw him.
Her Pa had beaten her that day, as he was wont to do. Her Ma died from the fever six months ago and there no longer was the comforting buffer of another woman in the house. Ferby sure did miss her Ma. Mostly, she missed her just being there.
She had risen before the men to fetch wood, stoke the stove and complete the rest of her chores she was expected to do before the farm stirred to life. Before heading to the barn with the milk bucket, she ran down to the springhouse for water, milk and butter. She put the water to boil on the stove then headed out to the milk parlor.
Tulla, the jersey cow, greeted her with her usual vacant stare. She already stood at the stanchion, waiting. Ferby hunkered down on the milk stool; her head leaning against Tulla’s warm flank as she rhythmically pulled the milk down. Tulla’s tail would whack her on the back of the head every so often. Ferby would slap Tulla’s flank in response and both cow and girl breathed out clouds of mist. Milking time was a quiet time, a right nice time.
Ferby poured Tulla’s offering into the churn and placed it behind the stove to clabber just as the men stirred around upstairs.
She made a pan of cathead biscuits and put the coffee on. Sure and swift, her hands flew as she checked the pot of hominy and sizzling ham in the skillet. She put some boiled eggs in a bowl and opened one of her Ma’s cans of pickled beets from last summer.
Shade, her oldest brother, came up behind her. He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“What’cher got there, lil’ Ferby?” he said, breathing into her ear.
She stiffened and shrugged his hand from her shoulder. “Get!” she hissed at him between clenched teeth. “I’m busy.”
Shade was tall and squint-eyed. He snaked his brown, calloused hand down to her waist. Ferby turned and poked him with a hot spatula.
Shade drew back and shook his hand out where a droplet of boiling hominy had fallen. He sucked on the burnt spot and shook it out again.
“Get! I said!” She slapped him away and he grinned, but his squinty eyes were cold.
Her Pa came in with her other three brothers and stared at them.
The mountains themselves had carved Ransom Gorvins into a dark, hard man. Brown like gnarled walnut wood; Gorvins’ eyes were dead black. He was a man of few words and he did not speak now.
He stepped forward, backhanded Ferby against the hot stove then calmly sat down at the table.
That was the day they met.
When the men went off to the fields and forests after breakfast, Ferby finally had a bit of time to herself. She ran, barelegged and barefoot, through the woods like a young doe to her special spot, the place where the rhododendron bushes bent, gnarled and twisted, down to the swirling water.
There she could be herself, a child—a wild mountain child. She lay on her stomach on a big slab of rock and trailed her fingers into the coldness. Sometimes if you looked at the water long enough, you could forget yourself and all your troubles. Sometimes, if you listened closely, God whispered. This was why she came here and how she remembered her mother.
He came through the forest trail on a snow-white mule. A mule as white as he was black and when Ferby looked up and saw him, she was afraid. Afraid, but fascinated at the same time. She had never seen such a man though she had heard of them talked about in angry tones by the men.
She stayed still like a fawn in tall grass, frozen on the rock, her hand in the water. She watched him loosen the reins to allow the mule to drink. When he saw her he startled.
“Oh—Hello,” he said. “I didn’t see you there.”
His kind eyes belonged with his kind voice. Ferby pulled herself up from the rock to look at him. He was tall and spare. His chin was covered with a close-cropped beard. She looked curiously at his full lips and nose, so different from hers. The darkness of his complexion was different from the darkness of hers, and different again from any of the people she knew.
He dismounted and dropped to his haunches to fill his canteen up.
“Reginald Hooper, Miss,” he said. “I’m in these parts doing a survey for Black’s Mining. I’d appreciate it if you let your folks know I’m not going to be here long and should be moving through right soon. Don’t mean no harm, just be taking some samples.”
“I’m Ferby. Samples?”
“I’m with a mining company. I’m just going through taking rock samples.”
“Oh.” She understood about mines but was not sure what taking samples were.
He cut his eyes at her, warily. “I must be the first colored person you ever saw, the way you are looking at me.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Well, Miss Ferby, I’ll just be getting some water here and be movin’ on.”
He fastened the water to the mule’s pack and started to mount.
He paused and turned, leaving a hand on the pommel of his saddle.
“Where did you come from? I want to know about where you come from.”
He adjusted the stirrup leather on the mule’s saddle and said, “I come from Kingsport, Miss.”
“Where is that?”
“Oh, about sixty miles north of here. It’s a city.”
“A city? Do they have tall buildings and all?”
“Yes, Miss. It’s a fair sized city.”
“Do you live there?
He pulled himself up on his mule. “Yes, Miss, I do.”
He reached back into one of his packs, pulled something out of it and reached down to hand it to her.
“Here you go. Here’s something from the big city for you to keep.”
Ferby took the object from his hand and stepped back as though his touch might burn her.
She looked at what he had given her. It was a cylinder about the size of a can of peas, covered in paper with a picture of a cow.
She frowned at it and asked, “What is it?”
The edges of his eyes crinkled. “Turn it over.”
Ferby upended the little round box and almost dropped it when it made a sound like a cow mooing. She laughed up at him.
“It sounds just like Tulla when I’m late for milking!”
“Been nice talkin’ to you. I’ll be going along now.”
He wheeled the white mule and headed off through the forest trail, like a ghost into the woods.
Ferby stumbled after him and as he faded into the deep cover of the forest, she called, “Mayhap I’ll see you again!”
Her voice faded into the cricket song, floating off like a thistle seed in the wind.
Ferby took the little moocow box home, wrapped it securely and hid it under her pillow. This was her secret and she did not want to share the wonderful meeting with the strange city man with anyone. One day, mayhap, she would go to the big city. Mayhap, one day, she would see the strange man again and be able to ask him more about the world outside the mountain.
She hardly noticed the burn on her shoulder where she hit the stove that morning. No, hardly at all.
For the next few weeks, after the men left, she darted through the woods like a wild thing on bare feet as tough as wolf pads over the rocks and shale. She searched out the dark man on the white mule, and when she found him, she sat quietly watching from the cover of the rhododendrons.
He drilled into the rock and pulled plugs of stone and soil, then placed them in tubes, carefully labeling them before putting them in his pack. Ferby guessed this was “taking samples”.
After a while, he would stand up, stretch, take some sandwiches out of his pack and sit on a rock, and say, “I wish I had somebody to eat these sandwiches with.”
Ferby would giggle, shyly emerging from the mountain laurel and he would share his lunch with her. Mr. Hooper’s life in Kingsport sounded exotic and exciting. A brassy photograph of his sweetheart, smiling with Reginald in a photo booth, entranced Ferby. She held it carefully from the edges and looked from it to Mr. Hooper, comparing him now and then. They looked happy in a way Ferby could not relate to–in a way foreign to the hardscrabble life on the mountain.
“What’s her name?”
Reginald took the photo from Ferby and tucked it back in his wallet. “Her name is Evaline, but I call her Evy. We get married as soon as I have money for a house saved up.”
So much of what Mr. Hooper described to Ferby about the city made her want to leave the mountain and experience this life for herself. He told the stories so well that she could see herself walking down the wide paved streets wearing a store-bought dress and white gloves. Her hands were smooth, white and soft, and a man brought milk to her back door in the mornings. Ferby imagined having a job where she worked indoors and had her own money to spend at the movies or to go to restaurants.
“When I come there I’ll wear a hat all covered in lace and we’ll go eat at one of them eating places.”
Hooper looked down. “That’s not likely to happen, Ferby.”
“Why not? Don’t you want to go to a fancy restaurant with me?” Ferby dug a bare toe into the dirt, flicking it up.
“No, Miss—that’s not it at all. They don’t let people like me in the front door of such places. We have to go to the back door. To tell the truth, you might have a hard time getting in yourself. You are a bit darker than most white folks, you know.”
Ferby frowned. This hadn’t occurred to her.
She broke off a leaf-covered twig of a sassafras tree, stuck it in her hair and twirled around, laughing.
“See my hat?”
Hooper laughed, then stood and dusted the seat of his pants off, putting his hat on. “Well, Ferby—you know I have to leave tomorrow. I’ll be riding out early to catch the train back to Kingsport.”
Ferby just stared at him for a moment.
“Will you be back?”
“I don’t know.”
Ferby didn’t know what to say. And since she didn’t know what to say, she ripped off her crown of sassafras and threw it on the ground. Then she just ran away, disappearing into the rhododendron grove. She ran all the way to her special spot and once she was there, she felt the tears on her cheeks.
Ferby washed her face, staring into the swirling water. Her reflection showed her face and wavy black hair in refractions of light and dark. Then she shouldered her sadness like a yoke and went back home.
The cook stove fire smoldered when Ferby popped open the firebox so she raked the coals from the ash and placed another log on the fire. She knew it was time to get supper started, but first she wanted to go up to her room and look at the moocow box, her one treasure and keepsake from her time with her friend, the mineral surveyor. As she climbed the narrow stair, she thought, mayhap she would go to Kingsport herself. She would leave this place and find a better life, an easier life. She felt, for the first time in her life, that her life could be her own one day.
Shade was sitting on her bed holding the moocow box when she pushed the door open. He squinted narrowly at her, and then turned the moocow box over so it made the mwah-ah-ah noise that sounded just like a cow. The cow cry hung in the silence of the room like the dust motes drifting in the sunlight.
“What th’ hell is this, Ferby?”
Her hands clenched the flour sackcloth of her dress.
“Give me that. It’s mine.”
“Who gave you such a thing, Ferby?”
The little box sat precariously in Shade’s big dirty hands. Ferby didn’t say anything.
Shade stood up and held the moocow box out to her.
“Here—you want it—take it.”
Ferby reached for the box, stepping forward.
Just as her fingertips brushed it, Shade dropped it and crushed the fragile cardboard under his heel. It made a forlorn broken noise.
Ferby flew at him in a rage, screaming and crying. Shade grabbed her by the forearms and held her there.
“You know what I heared, Ferby?” he said. “I heared you was seen with that nigger prospector. I think he gave you that there trinket. That’s what I think.”
Ferby struggled, spat and pounded Shade. The loss of her mother, the loss of her friend, her loneliness and all her longings, dreams and rage came shattering home with the little sound the box made. Something in her soul was lost and broken with that little noise. When Shade raped her on the hard plank boards of her bedroom, she took her mind to her special place, where the dark waters swirled and God spoke softly—where the dappled light burst through the rhododendrons and splattered the water with shadows.
After that day, nothing would be the same, and Ferby would understand what it was like to be broken beyond repair.
The days went by much as they had before. Ferby milked the cow, fed the chickens, fixed meals for her father and brothers and escaped to the place she always had run to on the creek. When she stared into the swirling water of the creek, her heart no longer heard God whispering to her. She strained to hear Him but her soul was frayed and ripped now. It was as if someone had fired a shotgun next to her soul’s ear, deafening it. She went about her life, content to fade into the background like a moth on a wormy chestnut barn.
No one noticed when she started to look pale and tired. No one took into account the drab shapeless garments she wore. Ferby became a shade, hiding in the shadows of the wood and skulking behind the trees like a doe that had tasted lead yet had not died.
In truth, Ferby was not aware herself of what was happening to her. She went through the motions of life without thought. In her mind were happier memories and, occasionally, she found herself there and remembered God’s whisperings. She played the happy meetings with her prospector friend in her mind, hiding from reality.
She became ill and lost her appetite. No one noticed when she would quietly slip out the back door and retch. When they did notice she was well into her eighth month.
Ransom Gorvins stood like a monument, unmoving on the back porch that morning. He had noted breakfast was late getting on the table and was impatient to get out to the fields. Spreading fertilizer was on his schedule and his brow knitted in vexation he would be late getting started. The days were still too short to cover the time he would have to spend to finish in one day. He had decided to give the daughter a talking-to since she seemed not able to shoulder her share of the farm duties.
Ferby struggled up the path from the barn with a milk pail. She would lug it a few steps, then would have to put it down and rest a moment.
Ransom watched her progress, but did not try to help. He had seen her make this walk before without such dallying.
She saw him and redoubled her efforts, but the task was too much for her. She stumbled, fell and spilled the milk all over herself. The milk drenched her baggy garments, making them cling to her body, now visibly pregnant. She struggled to her feet, darting eyes at her father.
Ransom Gorvins showed an uncharacteristic wave of emotion. His eyes widened, then narrowed, and his dark skin flushed bronze and angry. He strode over to Ferby with violence in his cold dead eyes.
She was terrified. She was sorry she had spilt the milk but she just did not seem to be able to handle it today.
“You little whore!” Gorvins’ words snaked out like knives.
“I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—” Ferby said. “I’m sorry ‘bout the milk—I’ll get more this evening. I won’t spill it again an’ we still have some from yesterday. . .”
Gorvins hauled back and landed a blow with his closed fist to Ferby’s cheek. She fell back, hard, and sat there holding her face and screaming in pain. The boys came out on the porch to see what the ruckus was about.
“I’m not talkin’ about the milk. How dare you bring shame on this family.”
Gorvins continued to darken with rage. Ferby still gasped in pain from the punch and her eye was swelling shut, making it difficult to see. She barely processed what Gorvins said.
“Who’s the father, you little whore? Who you been steppin’ out with?”
“N-n-nobody! What are you talkin’ about?”
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know you was expectin’!” Gorvins stalked towards her. “Who—is—he?”
Ferby sobbed, her breath hiccupping. She felt the sticky wetness of the milk all over her body and she started to rock.
“I-I-I don’t know. I don’t know, Daddy, I swear I don’t know! Please don’t hit me again. I don’t know!” A string of blood and spit dribbled from the side of her mouth.
Gorvins stood there looking at his daughter, his body trembling with rage.
Shade stepped down from the porch, keeping out of reach of his father.
“Well, I heard she was ’round that darkie, Daddy.” He said. “I bet she let him have a poke at her.”
Gorvins turned slowly and looked at Shade, his eyes basilisk-like, and Shade thought maybe he’d gone too far. Maybe he should have kept quiet, since the old man was just as likely to go off on him.
Ferby howled from the ground where she sat rocking, “No! No! That ain’t true! H’aint true! He never touched me!”
Gorvins turned back to her.
“Shut up, you little slut! Shut your lyin’ mouth! Time will tell if that be the truth. When you squirt your little bastard out into the world, time will tell.”
With that, he stomped back into the house, leaving Ferby in a puddle of milk and shame.
Gorvins kept her locked in her room for the remainder of her lying in. Ferby sat in a straight-back chair looking out the small window, her gaze vacant and empty. Her mind focused not on the woods outside her window, but on the swirling pool where she had spent so much time. Her other brothers tried to intervene and get her to the local midwife, but to no avail. She heard their angry voices from below.
“Daddy, you gots to get her to Granny Wilson. We can’t handle this ourselves!”
Gorvins stony voice answered back, “She brought shame down on us and I’ll not have anyone else involved.”
“Daddy, she ain’t a cow! She don’t know what to do, she ain’t had a baby before.”
“No. That’s my last word on it.”
Ferby spent those last weeks in her room. When her water broke, she barely knew what was happening. She looked beneath her chair at the spreading pool of fluid with surprise. The first contractions she had passed off as a stomachache.
As the contractions grew stronger, she paced the floor, breathing heavily and feeling the sweat bead on her forehead. Eventually the pain became so severe she began beating the door.
“Let me out! Let me out! I’m dreadful sick—let me out—please!” She screamed but no one came.
She wanted to bolt off running like a bloated sheep into the woods—run and leave the dreadful agony behind her. She beat on the door until her knuckles bled and after her pain was so great she could not form words, she screamed. She was not sure how long this went on. Time seemed to slow down and what took hours seemed to Ferby like years.
Finally, she collapsed on the floor, panting. When the baby came out, Ferby looked at it, small and still on the floor with its cord connecting it to her. It jerked to life with a puling wail when she picked it up and Ferby brought the little creature to her breast and sat there with it, nursing.
Her father and brothers found her in the middle of a pool of afterbirth, blood and fluid. The infant was latched onto her like a hungry leech. Gorvins came forward and tore the umbilical cord apart.
“Get some strong iodine.”
The men cleaned the dreadful mess, working much as they would if a cow had calved in the barn in their absence. They took care of Ferby as best they could. She let them, and said nothing. She stared at the baby wailing on her bed where the men left it, like a growth they had removed.
“Go clean yourself up,” Gorvins said.
Ferby hobbled to the door and looked back at the men cleaning off the baby. She did as she was told and went out to the springhouse and cleaned all the blood and birth fluids off. She was sick tired and hurting to the point nothing seemed to make sense.
When she made her way back to the house, Gorvins and her brothers were in the kitchen with the baby wrapped in a towel.
“Guess we know who the father is, now,” Shade said.
Ferby examined the baby. He was an angry red, like most newborns and had a fuzz of coal black hair. His eyes slanted and a port wine birthmark spread over half his face and down his neck.
Her brothers were silent and grim looking.
“Look Daddy, it’s the mark of Cain. That baby done been marked, it has.” Shade looked from Ferby to Gorvins, his squinty eyes like a crow’s.
Gorvins took the infant and pressed him into Ferby’s arms. “I reckon your brother has the right of it,” he said.
Ferby looked down at the baby and held him close to her. She looked at his little face and touched the mark.
“No—no—it’s a stain. It’s just a stain. Give me a cloth, I’ll get it off.” She wet her finger with saliva and started to rub the birthmark. She smiled shakily, “See, h’its coming off. Really it is!”
Two of her brothers turned away. As she continued to rub the baby’s face, the infant started howling.
Gorvins reached a weathered hand over, grasped hers and drew it away from the child.
“Stop it. You can’t rub that mark off. It’s God’s mark of your sin.”
She teared up as she searched her brothers’ and father’s faces. She shook her head and grasped the infant tighter. She backed away from them, shaking her head.
She kept backing up until she was pressed against the door. The baby wailed as she held him too closely.
“You’re wrong! It’s just a stain. It’ll wash off. God didn’t mark my baby! It’s not the mark of Cain! It’s not.”
Ferby pulled the door open and bolted with the infant out of the house. She ran blindly, ignoring her pain and tiredness. She ran with her baby as fast as she could, away from there.
She heard her father holler out the door, “Ferby! You get back here, now!”
Ferby ignored him. She ran through the woods with the child until she came to her special spot—the spot where she lost herself in the glinting water. The spot where you had to be careful not to step those six inches to the right, or you would plunge to your neck in the frigid, dark water.
Ferby took her baby and misstepped, entirely on purpose. The swirling waters where God whispered would remove the stain. For she was sure, it was a stain and not a mark. Mr. Hooper hadn’t touched her, but Shade surely had. So the birthmark had to be a stain that God would remove it in this holy place.
She plunged to her neck with the babe and held him under the water, rubbing the stain, trying to erase the mark. She was not sure when the baby stopped breathing, but when she knew he was not drawing breath, she held him close, rocked his lifeless little body and sang, tunelessly, to him.
“It were just a stain. Just a little stain. God will make it right. You’ll see.” She kissed his tiny forehead and laid him on the big rock in the middle of the creek, like an offering.
Ferby wandered off, disappearing into the wood like a wild thing. Like the child she once was and was no longer. She faded into the mountain laurel like a ghost, humming a mournful lullaby. No one ever saw her on the mountain after that.
They say the Gorvins’ buried that baby under the threshold of a cabin they built. They say, at night when the wind howls through the hollers like a red-tailed hawk stalking a rabbit, you can hear a baby crying.
No one swims at that spot on the creek. They say that deep, cold spot will suck the life from you and darkness lurks there like a panther in the woods. They say under the sound of the rushing waters you can just hear a lullaby being softly sung.
That’s why they call it the Dark Hole.
Rosanne Griffeth lives on the verge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spends her time writing, documenting Appalachian culture and raising goats. Her work has been published by Mslexia, Plain Spoke, Now and Then, Pank, Night Train, Keyhole Magazine and Smokelong Quarterly among other places. She is the blogger behind The Smokey Mountain Breakdown.