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Took her along the back roads to the big, train station, a wayward place below the foothills of pine country where the only evidence of her traveling was the burnt matchstick that burned out under a whittle-made basket with the closing of the sun.

A faint shrill of whistling could be heard along with the whispering that the conductor was going to hand her a browned package; the hill woman was to hold it to her chest with tenderness and not open it until the conductor said so.  So long she walked, she began skip-dancing over rows and rows of cotton, and houses made of albatross.  Pass a mariny man with a one-horse wagon who stopped on the grass on the roadside to park Red Cap for an afternoon meal of dry corn meal. 

Sweetness filled the air as the guilty odor sharply raised the cobalt-gray hairs of whiskers on his face.  Red Cap neighed against the intensity, and the mariny man dropped his mouth, and the only words he could speak were, “Run, dammit, run.”  It was lovely for the hill woman.  To hear the words take shape over her life.  To hear the words:

                                    The pale morning light marched

                                    The hill woman to glory!

                                    We feel like fainting—

                                    Oh, what a story!   

That she could move others to faint simply by them looking into those childlike eyes. Others dropped to their knees in her presence, and it made her feel saint-like, basking in simplicity of a life that actually fit, that her gleaming face brought more words out of the local folks’ mouths than an abandoned shed that was whispered to be haunted. But not all felt like the lift of smile lines across the face was necessary.  Some would throw little pieces of rocks at her face, little pieces of asphalt from the dirt road, and delighted themselves when they stuck to the inside of her raggedy shawl in her hair. 

Though his dual nature did not fit in with 1862 Virginia, the mariny man redeemed himself by pointing a bony, white, fugitive finger in the twilight direction of a minute-old star. Pointed with a soft curve of the finger, dressed it up with a sugary-like sparkle of pearly-white teeth that flashed and dazzled but also dismayed her. The hill woman, nonetheless, acknowledged him by simply nodding her head; it would be the last memory he would have of her, the last pleasant memory he would be able to share with his white grandchildren.  

He closed his eyes, and sent her his final thoughts: ‘Farewell.’  An unstoppable itching and burning sensation pressed up against her insides making her hurry across a field and down a hill to the town’s edge where the black-and-white BOARD HERE sign awaited to ease her traveler’s anxiety. 

All the hill woman could think about was not the little drip, drip, drip of blood dotting her footprints, but that she did not have a suitcase.  She said to herself out loud, “I must be important after all, and I have to go and be on this train and have no suitcase.”  But this discovery, this mistake would have to find a place in another song, and not in the kept room, where red hearts counted on each other for strength.

Thinking she needed something in her hands, the hill woman whipped the raggedy quilt shawl from around her neck, and silently squeezed her plump hand around it.  However, she felt shameful that she was getting on the train without Cuss.  Pictures drifted up from the darkness and clamped down on her memories: a sunflower field with an oak tree, and her initials carved into it.  An oak tree broke off in midtrunk and her Lowell dress up above her head.   

A deep, black face that had brought happiness, a calico dress for Sunday morning, and a brush broom to jump over; he answered to the name of Cuss. 

Every morning, he began his day by looking out the one window in the cottage, next to the one door made of split oak wood.  No one knew enough about him to know that he was afraid of the dark.   It was not what he saw during the nighttime that bothered him; it was what he did not see. They believed he was unimpressive because he was one notch above being to realize.  The high mark of his day was measuring the height of tall, leaning flowers on their stalks after he watered and soiled his favorite snack: sunflower seeds. 

But the split of the seed did not move his face muscles into an appetite of delight; it was the salt of the seed.  That he could not control the weaknesses in his life delighted him.  The weakness of the taste of a seed that would move his shadow into dangerous places in the sunlight, and move him away from the backbreaking world of cotton to a field that was all his own. The delight of this found its way into a tin box, where it was carefully dressed in brass-button respectability.

            Not even that though danced along the edge of sanity quite like being near the hill woman.  That she’d chosen a thick waist and dark features over a rimless hat with a red-eyed possum covering the head, moccasin shoes, and a Sharps rifle, with a powder horn, and a shot-pouch slung around the neck had not only started the legend of the hill woman, it brought validation.

            This in turn shielded him from wiping the soot from the chimney off of his hands.  He left it there because of her.  Her nearness shielded him from the smell of raked droppings, which in turn smelled like smoked boar with hilled corn. Even the vegetables tasted satisfactory without the need for fat pork seasoning.  This was how things went on for quite a while until the day of the dance.

            The night before the dance, a single shot, solitary under the exposed night sky barreled out.  The restraint of the shot not being heard again was due to the regimen of patience.  The Smith Carbine, like its owner, could only cope, and not predict the unknown terror that lay ahead.

            The sort of unknown terror that frequently brought headaches, and flushed his face with anxiety.  Alice rolled over on the straw-covered mattress.

            “What’s wrong?” she whispered and shooed away a fly near her head.

            “Change is a-comin,’” he whispered back, though his voice sounded more hollow.

            “How you know?”

            “I feel it.”

            “That don’t mean nuthin.’”

            “I ain’t felt this way since my baby sister Melinda died back in’48.”  They were both silent a moment, and then he continued, “Ma say once you only sure of two things in life: Jesus and feelings.”

            No one was too confident about what exactly happened after that.  One little girl named Potum said they sat under an oak tree, and ate corn meal mush used to feed the pigs from the trough, and decided to jump backwards over the broom.  Then, Cuss went to the lumber camp looking for wood, but on the way back, stopped at a fruit tree with a big ‘X’ on it, being in the habit of’ ‘taking something for a little work done,’ grabbed an apple that was poisoned, and died submissively.   Alice, distraught over the ending, resigned herself from life by walking down to the river and jumping in until she was dizzy, and the river spun upside down.

            But that story never got a chance to come true.  Cuss beat his brogans against the hind parts of a borrowed mule, and left with the other rum-drinking men to follow the trail of the road forgotten, a road not taken by those familiar with Virginia.  Maybe the others felt sorry for Alice, or maybe the silence of the woods pushed her over the edge, but the air felt different after that. 

            With that knowledge, Cuss would dream the end part or the oft-repeating chorus of the hill woman’s song.  He’d dream of having his own farm, a 40-acre spread where he could raise beef cattle, hogs, and mules.  Where Alice could have her own house, even if it was small and dilapidated and cook smoked ham and black-eyed peas beneath a huge black kettle.  He’d move Ma’s putrid-smelling body from the unmarked Negro cemetery, and move her behind that farmhouse, where the topsoil was rich and dark, and he could mark her wooden grave.

            Ten years later, Potum returned to the grave of Cuss Hill with her husband, J. Louisiana Lee, and her two children: Prudence and Sterling.  Bending over, one could see the words: Here Lay Cuss Hill, a Fine Negro.

            “There were two diff’ent endings to his story.  One ending say Cuss met his Maker on the road, eating some dirty apple,” Potum said, pointing up the road way past her pappy’s tenant plot and the old hound’s kennel to the roadside fruit tree.

            “An apple killed him?”  Sterling asked.

            “Sho’ did.  And Alice jump in the river.  Lot of folks was unhappy back then.  ‘Course Alice was a mighty fine—She was real pretty.  Lots of men like to touch her, even just a tap on the shoulder. That bothered her.  Bother me too if I was her.”

            “And the second ending?” Prudence questioned.

            “Well, some folks say those rum-drinking fools did not even take Cuss on the forgotten road.  They was scared of them bushwhackers.  They go straight to the saloon in town for some rum and whiskey.  Like a lot of folks, Cuss like to take something for a little work done. But rum like a sweet ‘tatoe.  One taste just ain’t enough.” Potum retired her storytelling and began singing the rest of the story so she could show her family the cabin with the rock chimney that she grew up in as she turned around and they followed her large heels.

            With her husband gone more than a fortnight, Alice began to worry that he had run off.   Forever feeling sorry for herself, and offering loss and redemption as a sign of truce for denying entry of the preacher’s thoughts about a man named Jesus in her heart, she found little happiness in her now-extended vulnerability.

            Old Spectacles himself, Preacher Dill Turney had given his soft word to her mother, whom he had been partial to, that no one  would sit close by her until he dropped dead on his face.  Dill was desperate and proud to die quickly, and except for him having a dream where his nose was compressed to the ground, painless too.  This would please him if he happened not be the main topic of conversation after his death.  That between bites of pheasant, the sagging lines on his face that were pale and slightly gray wouldn’t become the source of embarrassment and gossip that so many other preachers had succumbed to.

            His daughter, Edith made sure that his disheveled hair was neatly combed, and his frail  Old Spectacles observed Celia, held her in his gaze, and created a vision that was blood-free, pleasing to the eye; that did not bring a ringing sensation to the ears, or paternal

            Of simpler choice was the cellar-hole with dust on the floor, but that would

dry up too.  Pretend faces would not dry up either. Milk-liquid would start at the mound of flesh, and move down the stain to the apron pockets.  Blood startled the hill woman until she dropped the heaviness in her arms, and screaming was heard in the background.  But the sound of death never met his eyes because if

she knew they were about to part, she kept her silence.

Two faces had given him a cup of whiskey before bed, and then slithered away in the night like snakes, and left a permanent scowl on his face. 

Two hands covered his, one over the other, the fingers moved through the bends of honesty, till they were no longer hidden. He could not remember being born in a

simple dwelling to a simple woman who longed to retreat inside herself, and not have a strange effect on others. 

The strangest thing she had ever said to him that day, and the only thing she had said to him on that day was,” You go with them.  I see you in the next life.”  He could remember a few years later leaving that family to head north, the whole family had traveled by horse buggy and carriage to see him off.  He could remember their home being a mile off the road, and walking past huge trees that hid his lilac feelings toward the world.  It was that same lilac feeling that came around once a year, but twice that year, when he had woken back up in the orphanage. 

Hardly twenty years old, Buddy had barely been able to register shock before bruises appeared on his arms and legs that matched the gift the wooden walls had given him.  His body was stiff enough so that the purple marks on his body that he’d looked past it, out into the sky, waiting for the angels to come and rescue him.  But they never came.  Neither did his mother, nor the family that had seen him off the train.  Their eyes sparkling, full of pride—They thought he was going north, and he was.  What else was there to do?  At least there he had a chance to have a little fun, but with Southern farm life, there was nothing