Going Home to Appalachia
PART ONE: Going Home to Appalachia. Steve Curwood talks with Larry Groce, host and artistic director of Mountain Stage. He discusses and plays some music from Appalachia. Also Irene McKinney, West Virginia Poet Laureate and author of the books of poems Vivid Companion and Six O'Clock Mine Report, reads her poem “Visiting my Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia.” The poem is about buying a plot in her family burial ground back home and her mixed desire about “going back and forth to ‘the world’ out there, and here to this one spot on earth I really know.”
PART TWO: Patsy Hatfield Lawson, storyteller from East Tennessee, tells a tale of an Appalachian family that has never traveled, and the dream of her father to take them into the city of Memphis, where her brother is becoming a doctor. Irene McKinney reads her poem “Home,” about the fierce desire to be back home in West Virginia, where you “got your dealers in quilts and your dealers in coal. You got your people trying to work and your people trying to eat.” And Larry Groce talks about and plays some music from the region.
PART THREE: Pinckney Benedict, author of the novel Dogs of God and the collection of stories Wrecking Yard, will read a story he wrote for Living on Earth called Mercy. A West Virginian farm boy falls in love with the miniature horses on the farm next door, but hides his passion from his father who hates all the horses have come to stand for in a changing Appalachia. (50:45)
Going Home to Appalachia (continued)
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HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Larry Groce, Irene McKinney, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, Pinckney Benedict
CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It’s time again for the Living on Earth Holiday Storytelling special. And this week we’ll be hearing from Appalachia, stories poems, and music about the wish to be back home. (16)
MCKINNEY: Once I came in fast and low in a little plane and when I looked down at the church the trees I felt with my hands the neighbors houses and the family farm and I thought how tiny what I knew and loved was it was like my children going on with their plans and their griefs and there was nothing I could do about it. (16)
CURWOOD: And stories about growing up in a place that people rarely left. (4)
LAWSON: I learned how to cook and can vegetables, quilt and how to kill hogs and chickens for food. We were very sheltered by the mountains. My uncle said were were so far back we had to go toward town to hunt. (13)
CURWOOD: It’s Coming home to Appalachia, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to the Living on Earth holiday special. I’m Steve Curwood.
There's an old joke Appalachians like to tell. They say the reason God latches the pearly gates in heaven is to keep these mountain people from sneaking back home. Appalachians are known to have a particularly strong bond with the mountains they've called home for so many generations. Their sense of place, the land they grew up on, has shaped their culture. And they take that with them when they have to move away from home to get an education and find jobs.
So, the poignancy so many of us feel this time of year when we can't be with the people we love, or we miss the way our lives were when we were growing up, is particularly acute for those who identify themselves with a particular place where they can't be. For Appalachians, storytelling and music are a part of the way they hold onto their culture.
Now, Larry Groce is host and artistic director of Mountain Stage, West Virginia Public Radio's two-hour weekly live performance music show distributed by PRI. Larry has lived in West Virginia for over 30 years, coming there from Texas and California and New York. And he's here today to introduce us to some of that music. Hi, Larry.
GROCE: Hey, Steve.
CURWOOD: Good to have you here. And also joining me is Irene McKinney. She’s West Virginia’s Poet Laureate and author of the book of poems, “Vivid Companion” and “Six O' Clock Mine Report.” Irene, it's been said about you that you know the trees, the birds, the manners and the difficult history of Appalachian America, and your poems bear that out. Welcome.
MCKINNEY: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: And also joining us today is Patsy Hatfield Lawson. She grew up in Upper East Tennessee in Hancock County which is home to the Melungeons and Greene-Jones Feud, and learned storytelling by listening to, what, you have 16 aunts and uncles telling tales in the summertime on your front porch. And you now teach psychology. Patsy. It’s great to have you here.
LAWSON: Thank you, great to be joining you.
CURWOOD: And we couldn’t tell stories of Appalachia without having Pinckney Benedict. He grew up on his family’s dairy farm in southern West Virginia. He teaches English at Hollins University in Virginia and is author of the novel “Dogs of God,” and the stories “Wrecking Yard.” Pinckney, welcome.
BENEDICT: Well, thank you very much, I’m glad to be here.
Patsy Hatfield Lawson
Pinckney BenedictCURWOOD: So, let me see if I have this right. The test of being a true Appalachian is very deep roots, right? So if your family doesn't go back at least five generations in those mountains you're considered an interloper, huh?
BENEDICT: I suppose so, yeah. I mean, I’m a native West Virginian, I was born there, so. But my family doesn’t go back – a lot of families around where I grew up in Greenbrier County are, you know, 1700s, pre-Revolutionary.
CURWOOD: Now, the music of the mountains, I first heard this – now, from out east, as some folks would say, and African American, grew up in Boston and New Hampshire. And I had a banjo as a kid growing up and sang a lot of folk music, and that was really the first place that I understood anything about Appalachia. I used to love this song – which to me was the sound of Appalachia – and I’m going to sing you a line and then you tell me how close to the real thing it is. It goes something like this:
[CURWOOD SINGING AND PLAYING BANJO]
“Wake up, wake up, darling Corey,What makes you sleep so sound?Revenue officers are comin’,They’re going to tear your still house down.”
CURWOOD: That’s what I knew of the place and the amazingly infectious banjo rhythms. Which as an African American kind of struck me as something real important because I’m told that the banjo was invented by African American slaves. But the only place I ever heard the music coming up was from folks in Appalachia. Larry?
GROCE: Well, yeah, that’s an old, old song, and it’s done many, many different ways, from way back, I guess, in the 1700s, or maybe back across the ocean before that “Darlin’ Cora.” And the Appalachian music, I guess what most people think of it, has northern European or Celtic kind of roots because of the people who came from the Protestant part of Ireland into the Virginias and the Carolinas way back in the 1700s. And then it, like everything else, it evolved in the different places that it went, various songs had different lives and changed.
And the banjo was introduced later. Fiddle was always there, and maybe the guitar, but the banjo and other instruments that we now associate with bluegrass or old time music, mandolin and the banjo, came later. And the banjo came in the middle of the 1800s, or even after the Civil War, when the African heritage and the European heritage came together. And then it became an important part of the music after that.
[MUSIC: You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive]
PAISLEY SINGING: In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky (applause)That’s the place where I trace my bloodline.(FADES UNDER)
CURWOOD: Okay, Larry Groce, this song is called “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Tell me about the song, please.
GROCE: It’s a wonderful song, and it’s a contemporary song, but I think it’s very much in the Appalachian tradition of music. It’s written by Daryl Scott, whose people go back to the hills of Kentucky, the Appalachian part of eastern Kentucky. And it was sung there by a West Virginian who’s become quite a very famous country music singer and crossed over into pop a little bit, his name is Brad Paisley. And it just tells story of somebody who grew up on the farm, but tobacco wasn’t selling, and so they knew what they had to do. So they went to Harlan to work in the mines and they were told when they left, You’ll never leave Harlan alive. And they didn’t.
[MUSIC: You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive]
PAISLEY SINGING: But the times they got hardAnd tobacco wasn’t selling,And ol’ Granddad knew what he’d do to survive.He went and dug for Harlan CoalAnd sent the money back to Granny,But he never left Harlan alive.
Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning,And the sun goes down about three in the day,You fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinkingAnd you spend your life just thinking about how to get away.
And the sun comes up about ten in the morning,And the sun goes down about three in the day,And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinkingAnd you spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave.
CURWOOD: Harlan County, Kentucky, is known for its deadly coal mines, so death is a constant theme in the music and stories from the region.
Now, Irene McKinney, you’ve written about death. In particular, you have a poem about going home to be buried. But before you read it, tell me about your family homestead, where you’re talking to us from now. In a sense you’ve never really left home, is that right?
MCKINNEY: Yeah, I did. I spent about 20 years elsewhere. But somewhere far back in my back brain I always had the idea of home, and that, probably, I needed to go back there. At first I told myself that I would build this house here as a retreat and come here and write on a summer, temporary basis. But I found that after I came back that time kept stretching out, and this became more and more my permanent place.
CURWOOD: Okay, so, Irene, could you read this poem for us now?
MCKINNEY: Okay. This is from the book “Six O’Clock Mine Report,” and it’s about the fact that my father was a trustee of the local country church. And when I was living in Salt Lake City, he wrote me a letter and said, “You know, I think this would be a good time for you to buy your gravesite, the prices are good, $35.”
MCKINNEY: At the time I wasn’t that interested in owning this piece of real estate, but I decided to go ahead and do it. And, actually, I was still married, so I bought two plots.
CURWOOD: Uh-huh. So, is the other one on the block now?
MCKINNEY: Yeah. (LAUGHS) Or, I speak about what I’m going to do with it in this poem. This is called “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia.”
“Maybe because I was married and felt secure and dead at once, I listened to my father’s urgings about “the future” and bought this double plot on the hillside with a view of the bare white church, the old elms, and the creek below. I plan now to use both plots, luxuriantly spreading out in the middle of a big double bed. –But no, finally, my burial has nothing to do with m marriage, this lying here in these same bones will be as real as anything I can imagine for who I’ll be then, as real as anything undergone, going back and forth to “the world” out there, and here to this one spot on earth I really know. Once I came in fast and low in a little plane and when I looked down at the church, the trees I’ve felt with my hands, the neighbors’ houses and the family farm, and I saw how tiny what I loved or knew was, it was like my children going on with their plans and griefs at a distance and nothing I could do about it. But I wanted to reach down and pat it, while letting it know I wouldn’t interfere for the world, the world being Everything this isn’t, this unknown buried in the known.
CURWOOD: I’m wondering if the rest of you here in our storytelling gathering, if you have memories of family burial grounds? Pinckney?
BENEDICT: Not people. I mean, there used to be what you did with dead animals on the farm, with the dead cattle and stuff, was put them down in a sink hole. Where I grew up there’s a lot of sink holes, and so the farm has a lot of these big kind of funnel-shaped holes in it. I can remember that. I mean, you talk about a sort of quiet awareness of mortality. When you’re a little kid, that kind of thing, you go out there and you could see generations upon generations and every age. I mean, little bitty bones that were calves, and great big bones that were, you know, 2,000 pound bulls, and everything in between. You know, and all grown up with vines and trees growing up and bones in the trees where the trees had grown up under them and carried the bones up, you know. So not a human graveyard, but boy I remember the pit.
CURWOOD: In our place in New Hampshire, my mother bought this – actually, after my father died, some 50 odd years ago – but she marched his ashes right out there into the front yard and planted them there and said, “That’s where Dad is.” And we got the reminder every time we were mowing. If anyone’s looking for Dad, that’s where he was.
BENEDICT: It’s good to know. I mean, that’s an important thing, where Dad is.
BENEDICT: That’s a big thing in my life and in my fiction, you know, where’s D ad?
CURWOOD: Keep listening to Living on Earth and our holiday storytelling special, here on NPR.
SINGING: Julianne, what are you doingMaking plans on leaving me?Have I made your life unhappy,Is this how it’s gotta be?
CURWOOD: It’s the Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. I’m here with Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage, Irene McKinney, West Virginia Poet Laureate, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, storyteller from Tennessee, and writer Pickney Benedict.
This time of year here at Living on Earth we take a break from the news and tell stories. And this year we’re sharing tales about wanting to be back home in Appalachia. Now Patsy, you’re going to tell us a story about your family and growing up in a culture that, well, didn't really approve of ever leaving home. And, of course, that’s our theme – getting back home for the holidays.
LAWSON: Yes, the story I’m going to do is called “Trip to Memphis.”
“I grew up in Hancock County in upper East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. My parents were tobacco-chewing farmers with eighth grade educations. They nurtured me in all the Appalachian traditions. I learned how to cook, can vegetables, quilt, fence, bale hay, hoe corn and tobacco, churn butter, milk cows, and how to kill hogs and chickens for food.
We were very sheltered by the mountains. My uncle said we were so far back in the mountains that we had to go toward town to hunt. The people I grew up with believed, like their ancestors before them, that everyone was powerless over most of life’s situations and that the godly way of living was to do the best you can to handle what you have, where you are. They didn’t travel very much. They feared getting out into a dangerous world they knew little about. They were afraid of strangers, and all lifestyles other than their own. Maybe this fear was a product of their isolation, or their Scotch-Irish heritage, or a residue from East Tennessee’s experience of the Civil War, or perhaps it was their religion
I grew up as an only child with three brothers. Mama had my brothers in three years time and then I guess she figured out what was causing it. I was born when my brothers were in high school; Daddy was 50 and Mama was 40. Some people said I was a menopausal baby, but I don’t think so. I just think she forgot how babies got here, and it was too late when she remembered and I was on the way. These brothers were always in the background of my life serving as role models and setting new challenges for me. Besides my parents, these brothers were the most important people in my life. Because of them I would eventually leave my secure mountains and venture out into a larger world.
By the time I was 12 my Daddy was suffering from Angina Pectoris. He’d smoked and chewed tobacco all of his life and when this behavior combined with his Type A personality, it took its toll on his health. I lived daily with his arm and chest pain that he treated temporarily by dissolving nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue.
Daddy was a mover and a shaker. He always had things to do and places to go. Mama was a stay putter. She hated travel and she did not like to be far away from home. The thought of going places brought out the worst of her anxieties.
During this 12th year another big thing happened in my life. The brother next to me decided to end his career as a pharmacist and go back to medical school to become a doctor. My daddy was so-o-o proud of this decision and told everybody he saw. He’d say, ‘Did I tell you my boy’s going to be a doctor?’ And the answer was always, ‘Yes, Mr. Hatfield, you did.’
About a year after my brother went to medical school, Daddy started a fantasy. He started to talk about this trip that we were going to take one day to Memphis to see my brother. He said we’d get up early one morning and get in the freight truck – that was the only vehicle we had – drive to Knoxville, and purchase three train tickets to Memphis. He said we’d ride that train all night long and when morning came we’d be there. We’d never been on a train. Didn’t know anything about traveling by trains, buses, planes – all we knew was driving.
Daddy said the first thing he wanted to see was the medical school where his boy went to school. He said he wanted to see next that mighty Mississippi River and drive across it. Then he said we would go to this hotel where they had these ducks that lived inside it. And these ducks rode the elevator every day and they swam in the fountain. I thought that was something!
We stopped talking about the fantasy around Mama because we could see how uncomfortable it made her. We never took this trip. We never got to the point of setting a date or a time. When I was 16 and my brother was in his last year of medical school, Daddy died of a massive heart attack.
Looking back now at this fantasy trip, I know that I was being prepared to face a larger world. Daddy was teaching me to confront my fears of leaving home by creating a picture of conquering my fears. By using my imagination to picture the things I feared or that were new, I could overcome them, and I could imagine solutions to them before the fears had to be encountered.
Fears are important. They can either serve as a protector for us, or they can be so strong that they inhibit action, as they did for my Mama. Fears are a primary emotion, meaning that they are very powerful, right up there with happiness, and anger and sadness. Probably the most important thing about fears is that they’re learned. We’re not born with our fears. We learn them from the teachings of others. Mama, Daddy, and all my Appalachian ancestors had learned many fears about the world and the safety of staying put, but somewhere along the line Daddy seemed to know that we never grow beyond our fears without facing them and imagining our way beyond them.”
CURWOOD: Patsy Hatfield Lawson, that’s an amazing story. And I’m sorry you didn’t get to the ducks in the Peabody Hotel.
LAWSON: I did later.
CURWOOD: Oh, you did later. Pickney Benedict, do you know families like this one?
BENEDICT: Well, I mean, when I was growing up I thought we were way out of town, you know, living on a dairy farm. Because it was a big deal when folks would go in. We’d kind of plan for a couple days ahead of time and, you know, my mother would make lists of what everybody was going to get and that kind of thing. And I remember going to the movies was such a big deal for us. My dad would say, oh, well, there’s something he wants to see at the Lewis Theater. He’d say that in the morning. It was so exciting, I can remember it just became a ritual in my family that I’d get so excited as a little kid I would throw up because we were going into town that night. (LAUGHTER). And this is to go into the town of Louisburg – I mean, it’s 3,000 people, 3,500 people.
MCKINNEY: You know, there was one thing I was thinking listening to Patsy talk about that split and that conflict with the parents. It reminded me a lot of another traditional culture. Richard Rodgiquez, in his memoir about how much his parents wanted him to succeed and speak a different language and be in an outside world. And yet at the same time they were very upset when he came back home and they saw the changes – what we would call “getting above your raising.”
LAWSON: Oh, yes.
MCKINNEY: Those traditional cultures share that.
CURWOOD: Irene McKinney, getting above the what?
MCKINNEY: Getting above your raising.
CURWOOD: Getting’ above your raisin’.
MCKINNEY: Yes, that means that you’ve stepped out of the pattern and you no longer belong in it, and people feel that you’re alien.
CURWOOD: Ah. Larry Groce, what do you think about this story and this part of the culture?
GROCE: Well, it all rings true. I didn’t grow up out in the country like these folks did, but I lived out in the country for many years when I came to West Virginia. And I’ve been all over this state and met many, many people who – especially the older people – who did not travel until much later in their lives. And I understand what Irene’s talking about, too, because there’s always a mixed feeling when someone goes away.
Wright Morris in his book “God’s Country and My People” talks about it, too. A guy goes away to ag school, comes back to work the farm, and he does a lot better. But the old man still is suspicious of what he’s learned, even though it obviously yields more. And that’s the way it is everywhere, I suppose in every culture – that you want it to be better, but on the other hand, you don’t want things to change. And it’s reflected in just about all parts of the culture.
CURWOOD: Larry, can you tell us about the song “Mole in the Ground?” And play a bit for us?
GROCE: Well, this is another song that’s heard a lot of different ways, and it’s called a lot of different things – “Baby, Where You Been So Long?” I’m not whether it started off as a ballad or if it started off as a dance tune. The version I have here is by two West Virginia traditional musicians, Dwight Diller and John Morris, who did this on Mountain Stage just recently. And Dwight tends to do things a little slow. It might have been a faster song at one time, or it might have been a ballad that they put instruments with. In the very oldest Appalachian music you had the dance music and then you had the ballads which often were a cappella and mostly sung by women. So, anyway, this is just a real typical kind of old time Appalachian tune.
[MUSIC: “MOLE IN THE GROUND”
SINGING: Well, I wished I was a mole in the groundOh, I wished I was a mole in the groundIf I’s a mole in the groundI’d root this mountain downI wished I was a mole in the ground
And, sweetie, where you been so long?Oh, baby, where you been so long?Well, I been around the bendThrough rough and rowdy menAnd going back there ‘fore long
[MUSIC FADES UNDER]
CURWOOD: Now, Irene McKinney, you have another wonderful poem for us, and the poem is called “Home.” Can we hear that now please?
MCKINNEY: Yes, “Home.”
“This old land pit, green hole,is filled up with the bonesof all I loved.
The green pit spreadsits foliate of mountain ash,the sycamores furling and unfurling.
The land is dead on its feetand this is not the time to visit.Where I once walked,
green funnel though whichI part the clogged grass,ragweed and greenbrier.
When I came here first,it opened greenly.Where I touched,
it flourished. Now home,I slog the meadows fullof uncut burnished hay,
its tassels dusting mewith dying pollen.To retreat to the country
you must have somethingto retreat from, fleeingthe beloved, to the beloved.
The question here is not asked,The green wood folds and unfoldsits lapping leaves, and wants
me to become it. I am not becominghere, but being in the country.Its wordless haze
soaks into all my days of workingto slim my tongue, darting outof the twining greenbrier,
digging to clear the fencerows.This country neither closes noruncloses, deep in its austere winter
nor in its leaping summer.It permitted my feet passing overfor years, my hands unclenching
its catbrier, sharp clawsbesides the round-faced daisies.Each trip back I brought
a luggage stuffed with notes,a stack of books, a longing,when I stopped loving the way
the world was combing its hair,the color of its eyes,the way it grew its leaves.
This is not the mountain mother,the hills with green arms.We give the mountains our names
and they stand still: The Cheat,The Black, The Backbone.Because we cared to name them,
we can talk. We make a roughenedmusic, rubbing up against them,deep into the grain of sandstone,
the layers of trilobites.Our music comes out likea sweet molasses, dark liquid
globing from the fiddle,falling in dollops from the banjo.Repeats the ground of repetition,
foliage of burning sweetness.Deep in Shady Grove the buds unfoldand glow. Dance Little Fawn.
The Shelvin Rock. And in the citiesthere is another burningand they want to come home.
The Tourist Board slings outthe slogan made to pull them in;Come On Home to West Virginia.
Home; – finally, home.Here in the woods the grey fox,comes to my doorstep at night
and mangles the cat. You Left MeTo Die Like a Fox on the Run.Every evening the deer emerge
from the dark at the edgeof the trees, flashing theirglobed eyes. Dance Little Fawn.
The raccoon climbs the ashoutside my window and speaksa run of clicks and burrs.
To all of them, this houseis a big, odd-smelling tree,and I, a tall, strange-scented animal.
On the other side of Laurel Mountaina mine pit looms, and the animalscross it as they can.
Dark As a Dungeon, Damp as the Dew.Salt of the earth, burning, caustic.Down in the hollow an owl cries out
and a plane passes over.A possum slinks its ancient bodythrough the leaves, its form
unchanged since the land’s upheavalbegan. Possum Up a Simmon Tree.Foliate, unfoliate. Bud, unbud.
The roads are looping and windingthrough the Appalachians inswitchbacks, plunges, broken pavement.
You Got Your Dead Skunk in the MiddleOf the Road. You got your slaughter.You got your songs, and your Mack trucks
and your foxes and bears, and they don’t care.You got your rivers: The Gauley, The New,The Greenbrier, the Gandy and the Sinks of Gandy.
You got your dealers in quiltsand your dealers in coal.You got your people trying to work
and your people trying to eat,and they don’t care. Come on Home.
CURWOOD: Irene McKinney, how did you come to write this poem?
MCKINNEY: I wanted to finally sit down and pull together about four or five different directions that I’d been thinking about the theme of exile and return, about how passionate both ends of that scale are and remain to this very day.
CURWOOD: This poem has all of this musical rhythm to it.
MCKINNEY: Yeah, I wanted that too, I wanted that feel of how the music comes out of the ground and out of the surrounding.
CURWOOD: Can you talk more about that?
MCKINNEY: It just seems to me that poetry and music come together real closely lots and lots of times in Appalachian culture.
CURWOOD: Stick around for more poems, music and stories. You’re listening to our holiday storytelling special from Appalachia. This is Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: “Mole in the Ground”]
SINGING: Well, I wished I was a lizard in the springWell, I wish I was a lizard in the spring,If I’se a lizard in the spring,I’d hear my true love sing,Well, I wished I was a lizard in the spring.
And, baby, where you’ve been so long,Oh, baby, where you’ve been so long,I’ve been around the bend,Through rough and rowdy menAnd going back there ‘fore long
[MUSIC FADES UNDER]
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CURWOOD: It’s the Living on Earth holiday storytelling special, I’m Steve Curwood. I’m here with Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage, Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s Poet Laureate, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, a storyteller from Tennessee, and writer Pickney Benedict. We’re swapping stories and songs about the hunger so many of us feel to be back home this time of year. And my guests are taking us home to Appalachia.
In a moment, we’ll hear from Pickney Benedict, telling his story “Mercy,” but first, Larry, we’ve just heard Irene’s poem “Home” and I wonder if you could talk a little about the relationship between Appalachian music and poetry?
GROCE: Well, I certainly agree with what Irene says, that it’s rhythm that a lot of this stuff is about. The song you heard before played by Dwight Diller and John Morris; Dwight is a big believer, and when he teaches Appalachian music, the heart and soul of it is rhythm. You have to have the rhythm inside of you before the notes mean anything. It’s your own rhythm and, of course, that reflects the rhythm of the people that you’re around the country that you’re in.
CURWOOD: Yeah, talk about rhythm, I remember a couple of years ago I went up into the hills outside Chattanooga to hear an entire evening of foot-stopping and picking and plucking, as well as close harmony of the voices bouncing off each other. And one of the performers was Jamie Dailey, who’s now with the bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Larry, you got some of that music?
GROCE: Yeah, Doyle was a guest on Mountain Stage about a year ago, and I think Jamie was singing the lead on a tune that I recorded here. It’s called “Julianne.” I think it’s a contemporary bluegrass song…
SINGING: Julianne, what are you doingmaking plans on leaving me?Have I made your life unhappy?Is this how it’s gotta be?
Will you be here in the morningwhen the rooster starts to crow?Will my tears be all uncalled for,Julianne, I’ve got to know.
Dress yourself in silk and satin,put some ribbons in your hair.But don’t say you’re gonna leave me,it’s more than I can bear.
Go and have your night of dancingif you like those country songs.But when all the fun is over,Julianne, come on home.”
CURWOOD: I think if you could sit still listening to that music you gotta be paralyzed.
GROCE: Yeah, it’s great fun. It’s great music. And you can tell like in that song right there the whole idea of “come on home.” That occurs so much in the tunes of bluegrass songs and old time songs and country songs.
CURWOOD: Now, Pickney Benedict, I want you to tell us the story that you call “Mercy.”
BENEDICT: Sure. This is an excerpt of a new story, and it’s told in the voice of a ten-year-old boy. And his old man is a beef farmer. And it’s kind of ringing bells all over the place as we talk about this ‘cause it’s all around their farm, they used to be surrounded by folks who did similar sorts of work, but those folks have been forced to sell out over the last few years. So, this boy and his father no longer know their neighbors, and they’re not longer beef farmers around them. There’s a swine farm to the east now, there’s sheep farms, there’s a great big house that somebody’s built on what used to be an old charolais farm.
And the unbearable, or at least unbearable to the dad, has happened: the farm to their south, which used to be a beef farm, is now a farm where there are miniature horses. And the old man just, he can’t stand it, because the horses, he says, you know, he can’t imagine what their use is. You can’t ride em, you can’t work ‘em and you can’t eat ‘em, he says. The son really has kind of fallen in love with the horses. He watches them play and he feeds them. And he’s picked out one favorite horse, which is – they’re mostly pintos, but he’s picked out one little sorrel that he likes a lot. And he’s called that one Cinnamon. And so the story picks up and its called “Mercy.”
“He surprised me watching the horses. I was in my usual place on the fence and he must have caught sight of me as he was setting out hay for the angus. I had brought treats with me and was engrossed, and I didn’t hear the rumble of his tractor – that’s his old man’s tractor – as it came over the hill. When he shut down the engine, I knew I was caught.
‘What are you doing?’ he called. The angus that were following the tractor and the hay ranged themselves behind him. I kicked at Cinnamon to get her away from me, struggled to get the cubes of sugar into my pocket. Crystals clung to my fingers. He strode to me, and I swung my legs back over to our side of the fence and hopped down. It was a cold day and his breath rolled white from his mouth.
‘You’ve got plenty of leisure,’ he said. His gaze flicked over my shoulder. A number of the miniature horses, Cinnamon at their head, were dashing across the pasture. ‘What makes them run like that?’ he asked.
I hesitated a moment before answering. ‘They’re just playing, I told him. They spend a lot of time playing.’ ‘Playing. Is that right?’ he said. ‘You’d like to have one, I bet. Wouldn’t you, boy?’
I pictured myself with my legs draped around the barrel of Cinnamon’s ribs, my fingers wrapped in the coarse hair of her mane. I recalled what it felt like when she had thrust her muzzle against my hand, her breath as she went after the sugar. I pictured myself holding out a carrot for her to lip into her mouth. I pictured her on our side of the fence, threading her way among the gigantic bodies of the angus steers. I knew I would be a fool to tell him I wanted a miniature horse.
‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
He swept his eyes along the fence. ‘Wire’s in pretty bad shape,’ he said. ‘Bastards aren’t doing their job. Looks like we’ll have to do it for them.’
He shucked off the leather work gloves he was wearing and tossed them to me. I caught one and the other fell to the cold ground. ‘You keep the fence in shape,’ he said. ‘And remember: first one that comes on my property, I shoot.’
I made my daily round of the fence, patching up the holes the horses had made. They were relentless and I became relentless, too, braiding the ends of the bitten wire back together, hammering bent staples back into the rotting posts. The sharp end of a loose wire snaked its way through the cowhide palm of the glove on my right hand and bit into me. I cursed and balled the hand into a fist to stanch the blood, and then I went back to work.
The horse field was utterly skinned now, dotted with mounds of horse dung. Because the trees were bare, I could see through the windbreak to the principle barn of the place, surrounded by dead machinery. I don’t believe a single animal had been sold. I couldn’t tell if anyone was caring for them at all. Their coats were long and matted, their hooves untrimmed, curling and ugly. A man—I suppose it was a man, because at that distance I couldn’t tell, just saw a dark figure in a long coat—emerged from the open double doors of the barn, apparently intent on some errand.
‘Hey!’ I shouted to him. My voice was loud in the cold and silence. The figure paused and glanced around. I stood up and waved my arms over my head to get his attention. ‘This is your fence! ‘
He lifted an ungloved hand and waved back at me.
‘This is your fence to fix!’ I called. I pounded my hand against the loose top wire. ‘These here are your horses!’
The hand dropped, and the figure turned away and strolled back again into the dark maw of the barn.
Most days I hated them. I cursed them as they leaned their weight against the fence, their ribs showing. I poked them with a stick to get them to move so that I could fix the fence. They would shift their bodies momentarily, then press even harder. The posts groaned and popped. I twisted wire and sucked at the cuts on my fingers to take the sting away. I filched old bald tires from the machine shed and laid them against the holes in the fence. The tires smelled of dust and spider webs. This was not the way we mended fence on our place—our posts were always true, our wire stretched taut and uncorroded, our staples solidly planted—but it was all I could think of to keep them out. The horses rolled their eyes at me.
And I tossed them dry corn cobs that I retrieved from the crib, the one that we hadn’t used in years. The horses fell on the dry husks, shoving each other away with their heads, lashing out with their hooves, biting each other, not in play but hard enough to draw blood. I pitched over shriveled windfallen apples from the stunted trees in the old orchard behind the house. I tried to get the apples near the sorrel, near Cinnamon; but as often as not the pintos shunted her aside before she could snatch a mouthful.
‘You know why we can’t feed them, don’t you?’ my old man asked me later in the day. We were breaking up hay bales which were warm and moist at their center, like fresh-baked rolls. The angus shifted their muscular shoulders and waited to be fed. I could sense the miniature horses lining the fence, but I didn’t look at them.
‘They’d eat us out of house and home,’ he said. ‘Like locusts.’
I could hear the hooves of the horses clacking against the frozen ground.
One morning, the fence didn’t need mending. It had begun to snow in earnest the night before, and it was still snowing when I went out to repair the wire. The television was promising snow for days to come. Most of the horses were at the fence, not moving. The rest were lying down in the field beyond. I looked for the sorrel. All of them were covered in blankets of snow and it was impossible to tell one from the next. Each fence post was topped with a sparkling white dome.
As I walked the fence, I took up the stick I had used to poke them and ran its end along the fence wire, hoping the clattering would stir them. It didn’t. A number of them had clustered at a single point, to exchange body heat, I suppose. I rapped my stick against the post where they were gathered, and its cap of snow fell to the ground with a soft thump. Nothing. The wire was tight with the weight of them.
I knelt down, and the snow soaked immediately through the knees of my coveralls. I put my hand in my pocket, even though I knew there was nothing there. The dry cobs were all gone, the apples had been eaten. The eyes of the horse nearest me were closed, and there was snow caught in its long delicate lashes. The eyes of all the horses were closed. This one, I thought, was the sorrel, was Cinnamon. I put my hand to its muzzle but could feel nothing. I stripped off the work glove, and the cold bit immediately into my fingers, into the half-healed cuts there. I reached out again.
And the horse groaned. I believed it was the horse. I brushed snow from its forehead, and its eyes blinked open, and the groaning continued, a weird guttural creaking and crying, and I thought that such a sound couldn’t be coming from just the one horse. All of the horses must be making it together. They were crying out with a single voice. Then I thought as the sound grew louder that it must be the hogs to the east, they were slaughtering the hogs and that was the source of it, but it was not time for slaughtering, so that couldn’t be right either. I thought these things in a moment, as the sound rang out over the frozen fields and echoed off the surrounding hills.
At last, I understood that it was the fence, the wood of the fence post and the raveling wire and the straining staples, right at the point where the horses were gathered. I leaped backward just as the post gave way. It heeled over hard and snapped off at ground level, and the horses tumbled with it, coming alive as they fell, the snow flying from their coats in a wild spray as they scrambled to get out from under one another.
The woven-wire fence, so many times mended, parted like tissue paper under their combined weight. With a report like a gunshot, the next post went over as well, and the post beyond that. Two or three rods of fence just lay down flat on the ground, and the horses rolled right over it, they came pouring onto our place. The horses out in the field roused themselves at the sound, shivered off their mantles of snow, and came bounding like great dogs through the gap in the fence as well. And I huddled against the ground, my hands up to ward off their flying hooves as they went past me, over me. I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop them. Their hooves would brain me, they would lay my scalp open to the bone.
I was not touched.
The last of the horses bolted by, and they set to on the remains of the broken round bale, giving little cries of pleasure as they buried their muzzles in the hay’s roughness. The few angus that stood nearby looked on bemused. I knew that I had to go tell my father. I had to go get him right away. The fence—the fence that I had maintained day after day, the fence I had hated and that had blistered and slashed my hands—was down. But because it was snowing and all around was quiet, the scene had the feel of a holiday, and I let them eat.
When they had satisfied themselves, the horses began to play. I searched among them until finally I found the sorrel. She was racing across our field, her hooves kicking up light clouds of ice crystals. She was moving more quickly than I had ever seen her go, but she wasn’t chasing another horse, and she wasn’t being chased. She was teasing the impassive angus steers, roaring up to them, stopping short of their great bulk; turning on a dime and dashing away again. They stood in a semicircle, hind ends together, lowered heads outermost, and they towered over her like the walls of a medieval city. She yearned to charm them. She was dancing in the snow.
As I watched her, she passed my old man without paying him the least attention. He wore his long cold-weather coat. The hood was up, and it eclipsed his face. He must have been standing there quite a while. Snow had collected on the ridge of his shoulders, and a rime of frost clung to the edges of his hood. In his hand he held a hunting rifle, his Remington seven millimeter magnum. The lines of his face seemed odd and unfamiliar beneath the coat’s cowl, and his shoulders were trembling in a peculiar way as he observed the interlopers on his land. I blinked. I knew what was coming. The thin sunlight, refracted by the snow, dazzled my eyes, and the shadows that hid him from me were deep.
At last, the sorrel took notice of him, and she turned away from the imperturbable angus and trotted over to him. He watched her come. She lowered her delicate head and nipped at him, caught the hem of his coat between her teeth and began to tug. His feet slipped in the snow. Encouraged by her success, she dragged him forward. I waited for him to kill her. She continued to drag him, a foot, a yard, and at last he fell down. He fell right on his ass in the snow, my old man, the Remington held high above his head. The sorrel stood over him, the other horses clustered around her, and she seemed to gloat.
It was then, as the Remington left my old man’s hand and dropped to the ground, that I saw the bolt of the rifle was open, the breech empty. It was then, as the hood of his coat fell away from his face, that I saw my old man was laughing. He was laughing to beat the band.”
CURWOOD: Boy, Pinkney Benedict, you call that story “Mercy” and you sure can tell it. I was all set to hear that gun go off. How did all this hit you, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, huh?
LAWSON: I got focused on the tough character of my old man. In him there is this façade to be rough, tough and to keep everything in its place, to know how to manage everything. And underneath that rough, tough exterior is this incredible person who secretly loves these animals dearly and finds great connection to them. But to a kid he would have to maintain this rough, tough exterior. And the real twist for the story for me is when you see the rough, tough guy take on the heart of a child.
BENEDICT: Well, I wouldn’t say it out in public, but since it’s just all us friends here together (LAUGHS), I mean my dad – I was scared to death of him. Love him to death, but scared to death of him. Then you get a little bit older and you find out, well, you know, he’s just a guy, he’s a very funny guy, and that kind of thing.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you all for taking this time with me today to tell the stories of Appalachia. Pinckney Benedict is author of “Dogs of God” and “Wrecking Yard” and teaches at Hollins University in Virginia. Pinckney, thanks for being here today.
BENEDICT: No, it was my pleasure, thank you.
CURWOOD: Irene McKinney is Poet Laureate of West Virginia and the author of the new book of poems, “Vivid Companion.” It’s published by West Virginia University Press. She also teaches at Virginia Wesleyan University. Irene, it was a pleasure, thank you.
MCKINNEY: Thank you very much, I liked it.
CURWOOD: Patsy Hatfield Lawson is storyteller who grew up in Hancock County in upper Tennessee and is a professor of psychology. Patsy, thanks so much for taking this time.
LAWSON: A true treat for me.
CURWOOD: And my public radio colleague here, Larry Groce, who is with West Virginia Public Radio and of course the host and artistic director of Mountain Stage, distributed by PRI, Public Radio International. Larry, thanks so much for being on the show today.
GROCE: Well, thank you very much, Steve, it’s my pleasure.
CURWOOD: Today’s storytelling special was produced by Susan Shepherd.
Special thanks to Kate Long and Dave McClanahan of West Virginia Public Radio. Also thanks to Bryan Talbot from Spotland Productions in Nashville, and Josh Arritt at WVTF in Roanoke, Virginia. Living on Earth’s technical director is Paul Wabrek.
If you’d like more information about any of our storytellers, or about the stories presented here, call our Listener Line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. Or write to 20 Holland Street, Suite 408, Somerville, MA, 02144. You can also visit our web page at living on earth dot o-r-g. That’s living on earth dot org. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15. I’m Steve Curwood, thanks for listening.
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