“I shall not leave these prisoning hills
Though they topple their barren heads to level earth
And the forests slide uprooted out of the sky.
Though the waters of Troublesome, of Trace Fork,
Of Sand Lick rise in a single body to glean the valleys,
To drown lush pennyroyal, to unravel rail fences;
Though the sun-ball breaks the ridges into dust
And burns its strength into the blistered rock
I cannot leave. I cannot go away.
Being of these hills, being one with the fox
Stealing into the shadows, one with the new-born foal,
The lumbering ox drawing green beech logs to mill,
One with the destined feet of man climbing and descending,
And one with death rising to bloom again, I cannot go.
Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond.”
— James Still, Heritage
The land is jagged around here where I live now. Certain fields, you can locate the stone piles if the farmer was in a rush. He dredged them up out of his dirt, like bodies fished up out of a river. Slabs of limestone or dolomite the size of frying pans and trash can lids all heaved into an unnatural heap. Junk. Castoffs. Unwanted and in the way. Until someone else comes along and picks at the pile.
One, two, three, the stones go away over time, bound for simple patios and decorative gardens, bound for old hound dog graves and maybe even walkways back to where the meth lab lurks in the shade of the pines. Some stones will get pissed on by cats across years and years, but it probably only seems like seconds in Stone Years.
Other stones, they’ll feel the warm slithering of rattlesnakes, black snakes, garter snakes, corn snakes, and hoop snakes across time.
Oh, my friend. You aren’t from around here, I can tell.
Charlie, my son, he stares at me in the rearview when I tell him about the hoop snakes. How they circle up like a hula hoop, tail in mouth, and roll so goddamn fast down out of the corn after little Amish kids on their scooters at dawn.
Perfectly innocent, perfectly pious, belly full of jelly, the Stoltzfus boy. Lord, what happened? He got eaten by a hoop snake, they say.
Charlie’s face doesn’t flinch. It’s straight unsure in the way that only a 8-year-old’s face can be. He’s got a slash of dirt down his cheek. Like he came from Central Casting.
Mountain Valley kid. Modern Appalachia. First grade or so. Blonde hair. Blue eyes.
Angel with a dirty face.
“Nooooo, you’re lying,” he says with the question in his voice mixing with the chuckle.
I stare at him as we pass another barren winter field.
“I don’t lie, boss,” I tell him, gently. It’s scarier if you’re gentle when they least expect it.
“Not about hoop snakes, I don’t.”
He stares at me, quizzically.
“Or corn gorillas,” I say.
Jesus. Hoop snakes and corn gorillas. The folklore never ends. I didn’t make it up. It’s just here. In the air. Waiting.
I zip past fields on my way to nowhere.
I roll my Honda out onto the backroads for fun. To escape. To watch the wood lines on rainy days for wild gobblers picking at worms or strutting for luck. I sit in my car seat alone a lot, moving/ accelerating/ slowing down just to speed back up. I go slipping down past the Woodward graveyard, hanging the hard left, back into the opening where the sun will go down to the left at a certain time in the evening. Sometimes, if I time it right, or if it just works out a certain way: I am there. And maybe the hawk is there too/ she seems always there/ then I might scare her off the power line like all the times before/ bump her off with a dirty midnight blue Honda CRV/ watch her glide and soar out across the field towards the Woodward Mountain point.
I’ll slow down then. Farms in the evening gloaming. Orange sunset. Silhouetted barn. The hawk straight lining away from me, from my car and I wonder if she knows there’s another creature inside this creature that made her scoot.
Back in the graveyard, the old farm people are nothing now. Bones maybe, but many are beyond that. They were probably hard-working, somewhat strange people is my guess. Raised to know very little of use beyond the ridges up here and over there. But they managed to be survivors and thrivers down here in all this.
I imagine digging some of them up and making them scarecrows for new gardens and fields.
I roll past these mostly forgotten graveyards and I imagine digging up a whole nest of old country people bones. I imagine arranging them on the lush green spring grass, shifting the dirt from their joints. I’d make hipster skeletal wind chimes out of them if I could. Farm to table reality. Hollow songs on your city porch. The strangest wandering ghosts freed into the streets, like buckets of fish off your stoop.
After I dig them up: some bones are missing and I wonder if I’ve been beaten to the punch by another bone fan. But then I realize that underground: things have their own way of happening.
Creatures lurking beneath the earth’s crust, there are so many we don’t even know about. Long blind violet salamanders the size of country church crosses/ diving through the dirt as free and easy as dolphins in some clean back bay/ across time: coming up on new old ladies and new young soldiers and opiate tragedies and stone-cold drunks and so many so-called well-respected white men- one after the other- church deacons dropping like flies at the end of certain eras, all fresh country pie to these unseen hungry trains rolling along beneath these farms and hills, that they essentially cancel themselves out around here after a while. Cookie cutter values. Cookie cutter ways.
These deep wanderers, they only eat good country people. They only eat the pure, confident people… people so certain of that humming afterlife awaiting them within seconds of their Earthly goodbye. So certain, they were, that all those Churchy Sundays and all that ‘toe-the-line’ country living would- doubtlessly- land them up in the heavenly fields of eternal sweet horse clover. Some surefire day when their bags were packed with more ‘good deeds’ and ‘proper behavior’ than a Sunday school sing-a-long, they would waltz into the Promised Land like it was built just for them.
But never did they expect this.
Never this ghastly long black sleep. And then never this new fresh hell. This. This. This awakening. This depth-charged thunder pushing through the walls and these old dead bones becoming aware once again/ becoming as awake as the rooster crowing on the morning of that loveliest Easter, 1864. That wonderful Christmas, 1931. That hot and meaty 4th of July, when they roasted three entire pigs for the whole road and beyond down at the square fields along the creek, 1947. Oh the chickens they grilled that day. The pickled eggs. The sweet, sweet potato salad, sugary fine like we like up here.
Nothing spicy for miles around!
Nothing foreign for miles around!
Give us sweet and bland and easy!
Sweet, sweet, easy to eat, boiled potatoes and corn and wheat!
What is happening!!!???
Then the slithering giant underground Appalachian Hell Trainamander is locked upon that nasty yellowing leg bone and all those old-timey stoic church smiles are coming out of the dirt all around/ a long lost congregation back again/ peering through those rotting coffin slats like Norman Rockwell’s painted boys stealing summer innings through the harmless knotholes/ and then the pain from the clenching jaws/ and then the nothing one more time.
This time forever.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.