As Violet jostled among the church crowd and exchanged greetings, she tried to recall the sound of the spring that spurted year round from the base of the hill behind the cabin. But the voices and heat prevented her from hearing anything but a humming noise, as if everything around her were vibrating. She was at the door shaking the minister’s hand.
“Glad to see you, Mrs. Taylor. You’re looking well.”
“Thank you,” she answered, and wondered, as she was enveloped by the sweltering heat outside, how she had come to be where she was at this very moment.
She walked slowly. A group of children played in a lot behind the Gulf station on the corner. Decisions had shaped her path, caused her to be out this afternoon on a busy street in South Charleston that went for miles past warehouses and factories, and led finally into the hills, where she knew the smoky haze of the valley would be left behind. But everyone made decisions.
She continued on her way, deep in thought. She was a thinker; the years of isolation in her big house had, if nothing else, caused her to spend many hours and days thinking. But more often than not she felt as if she were in a maze, and that thinking only led her deeper into it. So it was now as she thought of her life. And what her mind told her, what it showed her about her life, was not much: only that every thought she had ever had and that every decision she had ever made placed her, at this very moment, on this dingy street in the midst of the stinking chemical factories of Charleston, West Virginia.
Then she was at the door of the big, white house. It was too large for her to take care of anymore. Once it had served a purpose, providing the room for her several children, who were now pursuing their own lives. One of them, the oldest, had become a doctor; another was an engineer. But they had all but forgotten her. The letters came seldom if ever, and the visits had stopped long ago.
As she opened the heavy, wooden door and entered the old house, her thoughts were of the farm and the joy she had felt as a child growing up there. She ate, and after sitting for an hour or so, mentally exploring what she could remember of her childhood, called her sister.
“Hello, Myrna. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. But it’s so hot.”
“I was thinking…I’m going for a ride to cool off. Would you like to come?”
“What a grand idea.”
“Okay, I’ll pick you up.”
She grew excited as she drove to Myrna’s. At least, she thought, she was breaking the monotony of her routine, that sameness that made up her days. As she wheeled the old Chrysler through the familiar streets she suddenly pictured her wiry, mustached father riding the plow along behind the horses.
Myrna was waiting on the porch. When she was in the car she suggested, “Let’s drive up to Cane Creek and see the Johnson’s.”
“No,” Violet answered quickly, “Let’s go down to the river.”
“What river? The Coal or Kanawha?”
“No. Our river.”
Myrna looked confused. “You mean down to the farm?” she exclaimed.
“Yes. That’s our river. Wouldn’t you love to see it again?”
“I don’t think so…you know what Daddy said before he died. He said never go near there. It’s all grown up and there never was a road built past the farm.”
Myrna was silent as they started the ascent into the hills. At one curve a goat sat on a rock ledge overlooking the road. She was glad they were in the country and, besides, she knew she couldn’t change Violet’s mind once it was made up. “Okay,” she finally said. “I’ll go, but only because…because I want you to see how foolish you are, always talking about that desolate, old farm.”
Violet liked to see the cabins along the creeks, the saw mills, and the people. She even liked the dingy, skeleton-like remains of the coal mines – at least they reminded her of things she had known when she was young. The city had no memories to give her, she thought, envying the people who sat on their porches in the shade of huge trees and who had mountains for back yards.
All afternoon they drove through small towns, coming closer to the farm their father had homesteaded after the Civil War. In the distance, Violet saw a string of engines laboring their way out of the hills with a line of coal cars trailing behind and a memory flashed: She and Myrna and Perry had just come down the wagon trail on their way to school. They had to wait for the train to go past on its way to the next siding, which was near the school. Perry ran alongside one of the cars, and jumped for the ladder, intending to ride to school. But he slipped as his foot hit the frost-covered rung. After he had recovered from the near fall, laughter took the place of his fright, and clowning, Perry hung from the ladder with one hand to show his sisters he wasn’t at all scared. Then came the jolt. Perry fell and the car skidded along the slick rails, severing his legs. He writhed on the gravel for a few moments before he lost consciousness, and when Violet reached him, his blood-spurting stumps were covered with cinders. “Get Mamma!” she cried to Myrna who stood in tears where she had been when Perry fell.
“Look out!” Myrna cried as the car veered into the other lane on a curve. Violet jerked the wheel to the right and barely missed a car. When they were on a straight stretch of road, Myrna said, “Let’s turn back.”
“Turn back! Why, we’re almost there.” She had to see the farm now, if only for a moment. She had to see the spot where Perry had died in her arms. She had to see things as they had been.
Violet drove several miles south along the Tug River until they came to the bridge to Kentucky. There she stopped at a combination gas station and church. “Hello,” she said to the man who came out. “Can you tell me the best way to Larson Creek?”
He looked to his feet and stirred the gravel with first one foot and then the other. Brushing his matted hair back, he squinted into the car. “What business y’all got there?”
“We used to live there. How long have you lived here?”
“Oh,” she said, and since he had nothing of the past to share with her, asked again about the way.
“You kin go a mile or so down the Kentucky side,” he said pointing to the bridge, “and walk the river on the foot bridge. Or you kin go behind the place here and take the railroad utility road.”
She thanked him, and they started along the cinder road along the railroad. Shacks lined the bank. Many of the buildings were deserted. In the inhabited ones, families sat on the lopsided porches watching Violet’s Chrysler intently. Barefoot children ran along behind in the dust until they were shouted back. Violet stopped at a shack that had a “Barber Shop” sign on it. Two men sat on the porch drinking beer. She got out of the car to ask directions and the men walked out to her. She looked closely at the taller of the two. “What’s your name?” she blurted.
“Oapie…Oapie Watson!” she said upon associating the name with the man. He looked surprised.
“I’m Violet Taylor…Don’t you remember me?”
He stretched his neck forward. “It’s been a long while, ain’t it?”
“It’s been so long I don’t even recognize much here,” she said looking around. “We’re looking for Larson Creek. As I remember, it should be right around here.”
“About fifty yards further. You can’t see it. It’s all growed over.” He pointed down the tracks. “Right where that big tree limb sticks out of the growth. That’s where Larson Creek goes under the railroad.” The other man went back to the porch where he carefully placed his empty bottle in the top beer case.
“Does anybody still live up the creek where our place was?”
“No, ain’t nobody been up there for years.”
“Well, we’re going up and look around,” Violet said, and turned to Myrna, who sat looking straight ahead. “You remember Oapie here, don’t you? Imagine, after all these years, Oapie’s still here!” Myrna sat still, her lips drawn tight.
Oapie stepped forward as Violet turned to get in the car. “You don’t want to go up there. Snakes all over the place.”
“I used to live there. You can’t scare me with your snake stories.”
“Ain’t wanting to scare you. But the stripmine does it – they stir up the snakes and they come down here. I kilt one right here under the porch t’other day.”
“Well, I’ll take my chances,” she said, getting into the car. “Thank you, Oapie,” she called as she drove away.
“Let’s leave, Violet,” Myrna said. “I’m scared of these people. They aren’t our kind anymore.”
Myrna looked back. The other man had joined Oapie at the road where they stood staring after the car. “What are they staring at, then?”
Violet parked the car in front of an abandoned shack and grabbed her cane off the back seat. “Are you coming?” she asked as she got out of the car.
“No, I don’t want to see it.”
She picked her way up the railroad bed, crossed the tracks, and stood looking down the eroded bank of the creek. The water was muddy with traces of orange running through it. Trees grew on the wagon road her father had cleared. She looked ahead to the hill, before which would stand the cabin. At the top were great bare spots, and scattered down the hillside were huge rocks and piles of debris. Briar patches, stunted trees, and weeds covered the fields her father had farmed. After a couple more minutes she could see the chimney, which she found was the only part of the cabin still standing.
She heard a train whistle in the distance and stopped. The river was visible below. A junked car protruded from a shallow spot. There was a graveyard on the far bank. A fire had destroyed the cabin. The barn still stood, but most of the siding had rotted away. She had expected to find things much as she had left them, but saw now that time had done its work.
Then she saw the spring and started towards it to get a drink. She stepped over a charred log and felt something sharp tear at her leg. She thought it was a briar or a piece of barbed wire, but then she saw the copperhead. Drops of blood oozed out the tiny holes in her calf. She flung the snake away with the cane and went on to the spring. After a long drink she started back.
She wasn’t worried that she had been bitten; it wasn’t her first snake bite. But she felt dizzy after a few steps. She sat down on a large rock between the spring and the chimney. Feeling very tired, she lay down on the grass, aware of the spoilage and waste that lay all around. Yet she was glad to be here, and for the first time in many years, felt at peace. As she lost consciousness she was a girl of ten helping her father feed the animals late on a summer evening, and the cool breeze that had picked up at the coming of dusk was welcome after the heat of the day.
Myrna had started to follow Violet, but turned back before she had gone far. The train had come suddenly and she had stood at the bottom of the wagon road waiting for it to pass. As the heavy carriages rumbled past, she heard Violet screaming. What? “Get Mamma!”
Shaken, Myrna made her way back to the car. She watched for Violet to return along the creek bank until it was too dark to see anything. As night sounds and evening mist surrounded the car, Myrna began crying softly. She felt the cool air blowing down from the hills and smelled wood smoke, and wondered how she had come to be where she was at this very moment.
Hill Tide was first published in 1976 in The Mountain Call out of Kermit, West Virginia, and again in Apple Magazine of Mansfield, Ohio, in 1978.
William Trent Pancoast's novels include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His short stories, essays, and editorials have appeared in Night Train, Solidarity magazine, and US News & World Report.