Excerpt: Song of the Mountain

The following is an excerpt from Stories of a Kentucky Mountain Family. Copyright (c) 2005 AMANDA ADAMS. All Rights Reserved. This story may not be reproduced in whole or in part by email forwarding, copying, fax, or any other mode of communication without author permission.

Amanda in a Tree“Amanda Nell, you come down from that tree. Right now!”

Peering through a gap in the green leaves of the Sycamore, I see Mama standing on the ground with Ellie May. “This child,” Mama said, “I can’t do a thing with her. This child!”

The roar of a train drowns out Mama’s voice, drawing my eyes toward the side of the mountain above the house.  The engine rumbles along the new railroad tracks, pulling a long line of cars piled high with coal. As the train reaches the clearing where I used to play, the blue Sweet Williams lift their faces to the sun one last time before the sky turns dark.

Black petals fall like rain, wet against my face.

I feel the presence of the others, the watchers on the hillsides. Waiting. They’re always waiting.

A terrible fear seizes my body.  I’m sucked into darkness and the darkness has walls.  Walls that close around me, squeezing me tighter and tighter until I can’t breathe.

The pressure in the walls pushes me down, down, down, through a tunnel, squeezing me so tight I think my lungs will burst.  And then suddenly the pressure is gone and I’m released into a cold draft of air, into a light without warmth, even though its brightness burns my eyes through my closed lids.

A strong force grips my ankle, suspending me upside down, while something cracks me sharply across my backsides.  I can breathe!  I hear the squall of a newborn, feel myself lifted into cradling arms.  Forcing my eyes to open into slits, I see the blurry face of Grandma, and realize I am born.

Grandma lays me against a warm breast.  “It’s a girl,” she says, “a fine girl.  Let her suck and make the milk come in.”  At that, I quickly scoot away and move about the room.  A woman who looks like Mama, but is younger, lies in a bed holding a baby to her breast.  Is that really me?  My head is bald!

In the room, a piece of cloth or old newspaper had been stuffed into a hole in the wall, as if trying, yet failing, to keep out the wind.  A slop jar, not yet emptied, reeks from beneath the bed there.  Is this to be my home?  Look what I am born into!  I thought I would come to a better place than this.  Already, I’m forgetting why I came here, but it must be a mistake, as anyone who knows me (whoever it is I am; right now I don’t remember but I must be somebody) would, I’m sure, be appalled.

Poor, barefoot, I’ll be clothed on weekdays in worn, ragged dresses, saving the newest dress Docia makes me for church on Sundays, simple dresses made too big so I won’t outgrow them before they wear out.  I’ll wear a pair of castoff cotton gloves found in a bag of clothes from the church, to cover sores on my unclean hands when I catch the itch, so folks won’t shun me.  And, on Saturday mornings, Mama will look my head for lice.

Egad!

This child is too proud, Mama will say.  I can hear her now, talking to a neighbor, but she has a certain pride in her voice when she says it, even as she scolds me for looking down my nose.

Amanda Nell, she’ll call me, and she’ll give me whuppings to keep me right, no sparing the rod for this stubborn child.  Yes, stubborn, too, she says.  This child is so stubborn!   Willful is a word Mama uses later.  Proud and stubborn, she says, and smart as a whip!   Why, she learnt her letters before she started school.  This child will go places, she will, if she don’t marry one of these fellers up the hollers and have a bunch of youngins.  ‘Course, what else can she do, being a girl?  She’s smart enough, maybe she can even go to college.  Anyway, she can be somebody, if she’s a mind to.

If I’m so proud, it must be humility I’m supposed to learn here. Very well, let it be; I will be humble and serene (see my beatific face – even Susie, the preacher’s daughter, in her store-bought Easter dress, will not outshine me in piety).  Or if I’m stubborn, then I must learn to give a little.

This child, says Mama, her nose is always buried in a book, reads everything she gets her hands on, she does.  Why, yesterday she found my True Confession under the mattress, and I wouldn’t tell this, Ellie May, except you’re the one that gave it to me.  ‘Course I took the magazine away from her, said it was just for grownups.  But she said she’d read it all already, even told the story she liked best.  The one about the woman who was adopted and never knew it til she had a black youngin, and her own mama told her she was part colored.   Her man left her over it, poor thing, but she met another man who took them in.  ‘Course that poor youngin of hers don’t have no chance a’tall to be somebody, does it.  A pity, that’s what it is.  You remember that story, Ellie May?

Sitting on the front steps beside Mama.  Listening to the chirping of the crickets, watching the light creeping softly through the screen door to shine upon Mama’s face as she stares quietly into the dark shadows in the yard.

Other lights, a string of lights, moving along the side of the mountain that faces the house.  Pointing to them, I ask Mama what they are.  “It’s the Gypsies,” she says, “they come back this time of year.”

“Where do they go off to?”

Mama tilts her head and pauses.  “Someplace on the other side of the mountain, I reckon.”

A storybook picture in my mind, of a tall wagon with pots and pans banging against its side, drawn by large dark horses and led by dark-skin people in brightly colored clothes, barefoot children with tangled hair dancing along behind.

I see myself, one of those dark-skinned children, not the coming but the going, to that mysterious place on the other side of the mountain, in a Gypsy caravan with twinkling lights, and wonder if I am really a Gypsy child.

“Why do they come back,” I say.

“Why, to steal our eggs.”

Did they leave me here, I ask, thinking maybe they traded me for the eggs.   But I ask it only in my mind.

I have to figure things out for myself.  But it sure is hard when I’m little and don’t know anything, except for what I read in books, and dream.  I try to ask those folks on the mountain, but they just stand there looking at me, swinging those funny black chains; they don’t answer.

Mama said I made them up inside my head.

That’s why I don’t ask her other things.  Why, I want to say, when the mountain sings, does the music sound so sweet and yet so sad?

Or the trees, when they make the wind, are they just dancing or are they trying to pull their roots out of the ground?  One day when the wind blew Mama’s washing off the line, I told the trees to stop moving and they did.

But I didn’t tell Mama.  This child, she’d say, you just can’t believe the things she makes up!  This child!

One day I found the answer in a story.  “This child,” it said, “walks to the beat of a different drummer”, and I know now why I heard the music from the mountain, and why the trees calmed the wind that day.  A different blood flows through my veins; it flows from the heart of the Mountain, into my ancestors, into me.

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4 Responses

  1. OH, my: I thought you couldn’t get any better! Then I found this excerpt (I HAVE ordered the book!) Can relate to much of this; I too walked to the beat of a different drummer; reading newspapers pasted to the wall, etc.
    B. during the Depression years in WV.
    Genetics, do you think? From whom????

  2. I’m a strong believer in Genetics and I think when I was researching the family I was also looking for kindred souls. I thought maybe there was another oddball back there somewhere, that maybe I was a “throwback”.

    I identify with your reading newspapers pasted to the wall, as I read everything I could get my hands on. It made me aware there was a much bigger world out there, with different beliefs and ways of living. I believe it helped make me more open to alternative ideas too, like astrology, mysticism, etc. In many ways I can also see myself in not only my children, but in my grandchildren. I had some natural ability at piano as a child and could pick out any melody “by ear” but we couldn’t afford lessons. Three of my grandchildren (ages 14, 7 and 6) take piano and have natural talent. I try not to cry at recitals!

    As for reading newspapers pasted to the wall, an older brother told me that when they were kids Mom stuffed newspapers in the holes in the wall of some of the houses we lived in to keep out the cold. Things were better by the time I came along but when I was eight our dad died and we were thrown back into poverty.

    I believe there are “two reasons” for everything, either positive or negative but I’ve always looked hopefully toward the positive side:-))

  3. I loved this excerpt from your book! Your account brought back memories of my growing up in the Cumberland Mountains of Appalachia in southwestern VA.

    Newspapers rarely came into our home but when they did, they served many purposes other than the initial reading. Some of these were: wallpaper for a grand aunt’s home; wrapping paper for Christmas gifts; and, or, insualtion behind window frames to keep out the cold.

    Infrequently a newspaper might, for a time, join the Sears Roebuck, the Montgomery Wards or the Alden’s catalogues, out in the outhouse. Times have certainly changed!

  4. Thank you! Although there’s a lot to be said for modern conveniences, I believe they’re responsible for a widespread sense of alienation by furnishing a buffer between us and our natural environment, and today we keenly feel that loss. Even though we have a lot more time to do other things (like blogging:-)),

    Especially in the mountains, plain old everyday living took a lot more daily work. By the time the breakfast dishes were done we had to start preparing for dinner (a trip to the garden in summer and the cellar in winter and even firing up the old stove again). When the dinner dishes were done we had to start preparing supper. We were thankful when there were enough leftovers for the evening meal!

    As for newspapers the only one I remember ever getting is “Grit”. Did you get that one? The reason we did is that two of my brothers got up before daylight to deliver them up and down the holler. They usually ended up in the outhouse along with the Sears catalog.

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