This is my story. It is, I guess, in a manner of speaking, a story about maps – maps and ghosts and memory, and how all those things overlay and underlay and weave themselves through each other. It may be mostly about mapping out that mysterious desire to root out the hidden in your own self – that which you never knew you’d lost until an invisible hand points you to discovery.
I’m a cartographer by trade, working for the Department of the Interior, Geological survey. I map out walking trails, so you’d think that physical maps, topographicals, would be what interests me, but that’s not the case. Outdated maps with long gone boundaries, deceased property lines and features get my attention. I hold close to heart those things which have disappeared, been eradicated or overwritten; live to stumble upon a run of stone wall aligning with a piece of the past memorized in the dusty annals of this or that back-water town office and held in my head.
I revel in the cartography of subversion, if you will. Coming from a mixed bag of lineage, you might see how these things could converge in my crosshairs.
Consider, for example, a thousand acres – the towns therein – and think about the demographic mixes and fluxes, movements of boundary lines from here to there. Those old town maps can reveal a lot. And of course, some of these maps are mine alone – maps of imagination, laying parameters of story onto off trail places, mapping, so to speak, the forgotten and lost.
If you were to unravel the threads of your DNA, they might lead you in circuitous paths up through the various ridge mountains of the Eastern United States – starting on the doormat of the coastal plain up the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Appalachian, the Great Smokies, Balsams, Roans, Brushy and Blacks. A fiber here and there dropped in the Cumberland gap, the Susquehanna River pass, a fly-away just shy of Molly’s Kitchen in the Green Mountains.
Tracing my double helix, your feet would tramp a spooling trail starting at the tail end of Georgia (on my mother’s side, Louisiana on my Dad’s) to move up into Kentucky, and the Carolinas, a snippet of Tennessee and the Virginias, as far north as Pennsylvania and upstate New York, leaving tracks in the deep clay valleys and marks through the rocky hills and old stands of rusty leaning pine where the winds whistle mournfully at midnight.
Somewhere, in this holler or that, within earshot of a long-gone railway line, you might find the remnants of a leaning hard-scrabble cabin or perhaps a hole-in-the-ground stone basement. There may be decrepit markers such as a weather beaten lilac bush, a half-buried fry pan, the leather sole of a long-gone shoe. That’s where my blood lies. In things of this nature.
We are, purportedly, Scotch-Irish mountain folk with some Creole-Cajun and a few other things thrown in the mix. Tenant farmers, hill people all, but as any geologist with half a wit to work with will tell you, a surface is just that- a surface – what moves under the visible is a whole other ball of wax. (Another name for us is white trash, but I have never thought of myself as trash, and if you could see me, I’m hardly what you’d call “white”, so we’ll leave that one be.)
At any rate, the aforementioned cohee-mutt remnants fritter away in lonesome solitude up in the hills and down in the hollers, visited by an occasional animal shuffling through the thick fall of frosty leaves to harbor for the cold season. In bygone days, perhaps a tramp laid up in one of the more well preserved spots. It could be that walkers or hikers in recent and even not so recent memory have passed by, although it’s doubtful as there isn’t a trail I can name (and I would know) that is laid to cross paths with those elusive ghosts of the way things were.
In one of these locales there is a massive oak that continues its upward growth. It stands in a remote quadrant east of an old oxbow, looping from a lesser known creek running a hem’s edge of Hancock County, Tennessee. It is this tree that I am concerned with here, for at mid-height, on the southern facing side connected to a stout branch, is the bark covered wrap and bump of a well-knotted rope.
The rope has been there for a good long while, as evidenced by its height and condition. The knot is bark covered, as stated, and fused by the years. There is an additional covering of spotty pale green lichen. The long-gone fray once swung in itinerant breezes, waving to a sheer sky as the tree cast its shadow under the slanting of the day (scudding clouds across bright sky making for a cinematic effect in the circle of turf at the trunk’s base & across the autumned hills – if, for example, the eye of this imaginary camera was to pull back and pan, to offer you this long-range view.)
The rope is at the heart of this story. It being a mark – don’t ask me how I know this, I just do – on the trailing map of a man who fled, with his wife and child, the woe of pissed-off creditors and the persistent gnaw of hunger to catch a momentary breath in the blue hills. This was some time before the oxbow, so the river was further from the tree than it is now, and the branch was considerably lower. There was also a singing stream that ran less than a quarter mile from this area, but for some reason or another, it is now dried up or gone underground. (The land reveals barely a sign or scratch of human habitation, so you’ll just have to take that on faith.)
They were inconceivably young, this pair, despite the husband being ten years the senior. The child couldn’t have been more than two. The man and his wife both were bone thin, she with a thick mass of curly brown hair, still in her teens, with a faded bruise under her left eye. His hair was black and his eyes keen and not given to anything but cold hard stares and flash-in-the-pan rage.
The holler was dusking when they arrived in the small wagon that the man had somehow secured from a fellow he worked with at the mill over in Claibourne, where he had just lost his job. (It could be that the fellow took pity or it could be that he woke the next morning to find the hickory wagon with the near-rotted wheel plain gone. Gone, too, were a rangy old nag and boards from the mill, an axe, a long saw and a peck of nails. There was also a pie missing from Louella Custis’s windowsill.) It was late spring and the willows were in bud by the river, at the precise point where later the oxbow would emerge.
Nightingales and warblers and dark-eyes juncos were bidding the world adieux in the late light as the couple and the drowsing child passed by. There wasn’t another human being around for at least twenty miles as the crow flies in any direction.
“Get ye down and bundle up some kindle, woman” the man said in a tight voice as he brought the limping wagon to a full stop at the edge of the thick forest. Tired as she was, the wife moved quickly off into the woods to gather branches. The child slept on in the wagon’s foot rest, covered by her ragged shawl. The man brought out some meagre tackle and went to the stream. Luck shone on him for brief time and in a rare moment. He walked back to the wagon with some fair-sized dripping trout.
The man’s trout-luck held through the next day, when scouting about the lay of land, he found a small decrepit dwelling, abandoned and the worse for wear since the previous three winters had been harsh ones. “Ah,” said the man to himself, “it be a sign.”
The couple set about their tasks and soon the dwelling began to take its shape again. The woman tied the child to a low lying oak branch with a length of jute that would mimic some freedom as she cleared out the fireplace and swept out the junk covering the dirt floor, washed the walls, chimney and shelf with water from the stream. The hammer rang out in percussive rhythms through the little valley as the man patched the roof and built a door and shutters for the window. The baby sat in a patch of sun making plays with the shadows of his hands and the nag, tied on her own rope nearby, foraged nibblets of pale grass.
This was a week’s time in the late spring and the weather held warm and the luck held on. The man used the now extra lumber to shore up the shed and build a floor for the cabin, which was all well and good since he had to truck it in on his shoulders a half-mile beyond the forest’s edge, as the wagon had no fit between the old growth trees.
In late summer the woman found a brilliant patch of blackberries in a forest meadow beyond the stream. She went out there picking with the nag and the baby one fine morning under a sky so blue it would make your heart ache, singing an old song that had come down to her through her grammy (who had it from her grammy). She had her little boy tied to her waist with a long bit of rope, and he was sitting in a tuft of grass playing with a daisy. Plunk. Plunk. The berries went into the bucket and a warm breeze moved her hair. Plunk. Plunk. The bucket was filling up nicely. She began the song again and of a sudden heard a harmony to her own voice. She stopped, looked around, and began again, and there, again, was the voice, high and sweet soaring in and out of the melody line. The bushes were high and the dark forest was at her back. “Hello? Hello?” she called. There was no answer, but a rustling sound from across the patch. The world under the vast blue sky became very still and silent. The hair prickling on the back of her neck, she gathered the baby, called the nag from her warm clover grazing. Although the voice had not frightened her, it had washed her with a shiver. She crossed the stream, looking back over her shoulder once, and made her way through the dark woods to the cabin.
By autumn it was apparent that another child was on the way. So along with the work of her hands, the woman had her body to contend with. This sometimes did not sit well with the man, who was not known (to the very few who could claim any knowledge of him) for patience.
It was not an easy time, and the woman often dropped whatever was in her hands and ran out the door or around the corner of the cabin or into the ferns between the old trees to relieve her sickness. But in the way of luck, the weather held mild in the way of Indian summer and small patch of garden produced a fair share. An apple tree at southern corner of the cabin gave a windfall of fruit. The woman found a good lime deposit further down the edge of the stream along with a salt lick further inland, but not too far. The little house got a coat of whitewash inside, and was clean and small and cozy in the firelight. Small game abounded and just as the world turned its cold shoulder, the man brought down a large buck.
Winter came with a blast and as I’m sure you know, winter is winter, long or short. It is a season geared for the well healed, not the down at the heal, no matter how cozy the accommodations may appear. The woman’s belly grew along with the man’s temper and before spring stuck out its first buds, other blossoms had appeared on her face and backside. (As is the case with most Good Things, Luck among them, when Desperation appears, off they fly.) The weather warmed and yet it seemed nothing could go right. The child turned three and his belly was big and he cried a lot. The game was scarce and the apples had run out long ago.
“Keep that squaller quiet, woman!” the man would speak across the small room as the woman toddled to the child with her growing enormity held precariously out in front of her, arms out for balance. He didn’t raise his voice, but in the small house it felt like a shout. His eyes were shifty, hard and mean. He had taken to disappearing without a word for days at a time, tending trap lines, and to sipping whiskey when he had it. She didn’t know where the moonshine came from.
Then spring came in late but earnest and up came the ramps under buckeyes, lindens, hickories and oaks surrounding the stream. The woman went with a willow basket to gather some and again had her child strung to her waist with a long length of rope. The sun shone through the branches of the tall old trees dappled the forest floor. The day was warm and smelled of promises and summer. She started singing in the joy of it all as the task surrounded her with the moist woodsy garlic odor. The song was another old tune (which, when she sang, brought the comfort and almost a wafting odor of sweet tobacco burning in her grammy’s long clay pipe.) Starting the second verse she glanced over at her boy sitting upright and still in a patch of sun, staring with some intensity at a small willow nearer the stream. The bush began to quiver and a voice joined in the song, again with a sweet, high harmony. “Who is there?” the woman called. There was no answer. The willow swayed and bowed, its branches shaking. The woman paused for a moment and then went back to gathering ramps into her branch basket and singing softly, allowing the other voice to weave itself in. When she was finished, she called out a thank you to the now still tree and, taking her son’s little hand, headed back to the cabin.
With the warm lengthening days, the small game returned in abundance and a large woodchuck gave up the ghost to provide them a hearty stew. The woman was tossing dishwater from the noonday meal into the garden and singing the old chanson, when movement caught her eye. As she turned around another voice joined the song, and there, hardly discernable in the sun-shafted edge of the forest, backed by an old lilac, stood a dark girl in a pale sprigged dress. Their eyes met. The world suddenly hushed itself, as if a cotton batting had muffled all sound, or the holler had sucked it’s breath in for a heartbeat. The girl then melted into the oaks, hickories and lindens, her pale dress like a spot of sunlight through the trees as a willow warbler called out to the twig-hatched indigo sky. When the man came home in the dusking, the nag laden down with cornmeal, sugar and beans – and mash rye- traded for a winter’s work of trapping, the woman neglected to mention what she’s seen. In fact, it seemed to her that she hadn’t seen anyone at all. What she recalled was a warbler singing its heart as an itinerant breeze selected only the solitary old lilac to dance through.
That evening her boy cried. Her husband drank. The boy cried more when the man threw his plate and it smashed against the cabin wall, spattering fricassee across the whitewash. The woman tried to shield her child, fronting him with her swollen belly, but her husand was wiry, drunk and strong, filled with pointless fury. She came to against the cabin wall, her face to the broom’s bristles. The man was staring into the fire. Her head felt wet and she could hear her child crying somewhere outside.
Getting herself up took some kind of effort, but up she got at last, and shuffled for the door.
“Git ye back, woman!” said the man. “That squaller will learn soon enough to keep hisself quiet. There ain’t no call for weeping and wailing, and from a boy no less, and no call for crying no-how. He’s had his rear-end adjusted an’ been tied out for the night. Now get ye to bed. I’ll hear no more of it!”
In the morning, she was feverish and too sick to rise. Her hair felt hard and sticky and her whole body ached. Her womb felt swollen and strange. The cabin was empty, door swinging open in a gentle summer breeze. The variegated twitters and calls of the forest birds floated around her head and the scent of lilac wrapped her in a heavy veil, lulling her back into the sinkhole of sleep.
The woman didn’t know how long she had slept, but when she awoke it was dark and a chill was in the air as if a hard frost had come down. Her laboring had begun and she called out to her husband but there was no answer beyond the soft mournful hoot of a barred owl. She moaned her agony, willing her spirit up, up, up, to the cabin’s pitched roof as wave after wave of pain swelled and broke until she lost consciousness.
In her dream, her grammy’s clay pipe filled the room with aromatic smoke, the bitter scent of wild cherry bark steeped into tea and held to her mouth with gentle firm hands. An old familiar song softly filled the darkness and her howls became animal howls became verses, swirling into other melodies, older and intricate, spun through with silver threads and a high sweet voice in counter melody weaving itself over and above and through. The warm scents of tobacco smoke, wild cherry, lilac. She thought for a time that the old nag was there, pressing her clover-sweet head to her own, kissing her forehead with wild grass lips. Her little boy was there and his tears were gone and he shone with a bright light around him that she thought must be the moon’s. The girl with the sprigged dress put a cool cloth to her hot brow, wiped her face, her arms her legs and placed a little bundle to her breast. There were other figures, but they were dim, shapeless. A horrible stumbling cursing figure she thought must be her man. “Nigger loving whore!” a voice shouted near her face, spattering a foul odor of corn mash, then, a clattering bang and figure was gone. The night became again the warm soft firm hands and the lilac and the girl with the sprigged dress and finally heavy, dreamless sleep.
In the end, what happens, happens and who really knows what happens? Put three folks in a cabin where something goes down, and each one will walk out with a different story. History is a cartography drawn in crumb-trails and whispers. Stories are the dreams of those who tell them, a way to breathe the life into half-remembered events or folks whose nib-written name in a county register or lichened scratch on a grave marker may be all the evidence left that they ever walked the earth. We are what we are, and nothing can change that, yet each of us is so much more than the surface of our skin, hair and eyes. The topography of a body hides secrets like the mountains hide the abandoned scraps of so many lives.
Grammy Byrd was born in a hill holler of Hancock County, Tennessee, in 1921. Who attended her is lost to time, like so much else. My great granddaddy, according to family lore, gave up the ghost, face down in a stream near the cabin after consuming bad moonshine the night Grammy was born. Grammy says she remembers a marker with his name under a willow by the stream, but where that is, precisely, she can never quite recall. She thinks, too, that Great Granny may have had another child, a boy, who passed before she was born, but how she thought this is, is anyone’s guess. As far as anybody alive knows, Grammy was the only.
Lila Byrd looks a lot like me. In fact, she and I are the standouts in our Scotch Irish Cajun Whatever family, for our looks – dark skin, kinked out hair, the whole nine yards of everything you might expect, in your ignorance of such things, a so-called white trash family is the ass-opposite of. Such are the losses in assuming and the vagaries of the human gene pool. Grammy and me? We’re the stuff that peeks up from under the surface so to speak, the curious findings in your own back woodlot after a serious thaw.
Grammy grew up with two women in residence – Great Granny and Aunt Phoebe Wing, a Deer Clan Cherokee of mixed ancestry. Both passed when I was a toddler, so I treasure the snapshot of me as a baby, sitting on Great Granny’s lap with Auntie Phoebe out on our porch. They are smiling at each other to beat the band. Perhaps I’ve just pulled some baby antic that’s got them rolling. Grammy and Mamma are on the step below, Grammy with a laugh on her face like she’s about to bust a gut. My father could have snapped the shot just prior to his one-way ticket to the Mekong Delta, 1965. From all accounts, he had a wicked sense of humor, which could also account for the hilarity captured in that Kodak moment.
A number of years ago, I was researching old homesteads, combing various necks of woods for the bit of land where Grammy Byrd was born. A hunch from an entry on an old land deeds registry led me to exploring some acreage near a feeder stream off of Mulberry Creek. I came upon the massive oak, and decided to climb it to see what I could see. Half-way up, in my gear and with binoculars, I was resting on a big branch with a knotty protuberance. I was idly looking at it when in one of those weird moments, it revealed its true self. I picked at it with my jack knife, and sure enough, under the bark was a thick knot of rope. Looking around from my high perch, I noted some concave areas below me and descended to investigate. At the edge of one, was an old apple tree and diagonally across a decrepit lilac.
Under the lilac, covered in moss, was a flat stone marker. I scraped away at it with my knife and a little willow emerged, carved over the inscription C.B. d.1921.
Underneath this the phrase “fly little bird”, which made my heart skip a few beats.
Great Granny made a song way back called Charlie Bird (Byrd is her surname, so you can imagine this interests me immensely.) She would sing and Auntie Phoebe would join in with a counter-melody line, according to Mamma, and, she says, it was enough to make your heart come near to breaking. (I dream about those voices sometimes, dreams that must be rooted in the harmonies around my cradle.) Grammy on her fiddle and Mamma on her cigar-box banjo, sing it once in a long while, when the rain drums down on the tin roof of our cabin, a fire crackling in the stove.
The song is mournful in the way only a mountain lament can be, and has always caught at me with its high lonesome melody and simple words, and it came into my head as I stooped down reading that little stone marker: C.B. Charlie Bird. Charlie Byrd.
Stories can map a way home. Tragedy is part and parcel, the same as joy, and if you think you don’t have the whole kitten caboodle of all that and ghosts, too, you may want to think again. But no matter, when a story comes to us, it needs telling.
Why else the need to know the lay of land off the oxbow of a no-account creek?
Why else climb a tree to find an old rope knot that points to a grave?
It’s where the blood lies, in those ties to land and story, maps and dreams.
I had a little Charlie bird
his wings as bright as snow
one moonlit night he flew away
oh where did Charlie go?
Charlie bird oh Charlie why fly your holler-home?
Charlie bird, little bird tell me where you roam?
Are you down in the holler where the willow weeps
Charlie sweet Charlie, is that where you sleep?
I’ll build me a cabin on a mountain so high
and catch my little bird as heaven he flies.
I had a little Charlie bird
who flew away in Spring
no more shall I hear
little Charlie bird sing.