Hill Tide, fiction by William Trent Pancoast

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?”

Not long.”

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…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.”

Non­sense.”

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.

 

 

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