This piece is a revised version of my nonfiction piece, “The Way Home,” published in the West Florida Literary Federation’s Emerald Coast Review, Volume XIV (2008). Some of you may have read this before, but I’m in a nostalgic frame of mind on this September afternoon, and am going to indulge myself by re-posting it. The events recounted here took place in late 2003 and were so horrific I no longer know the exact day they occurred, so I stuck an arbitrary date of 10-13-2003 on. Other posts around that date seem as though nothing had happened. Was I in shock? I know we both cried for days. Thinking about it still makes me cry.
All Too Blest
Colonies of “Florida people” flock to the cool air of Western North Carolina each summer. They congregate in gated communities where their neighbors are fellow Floridians. All are fleeing the flatland heat and humidity. They enjoy life on the fairways: days filled with golf and dinner at the club. They are a thoroughly homogeneous society of walking success stories, happiest when clustered together.
My husband, Buck, and I are “Florida people,” too. Like so many others, we went through a “North Carolina mountains” phase, but we were after something different, something more. We wanted to spend our summers in splendid isolation in a pristine aerie, with command of the hill, no next-door neighbors, and a view to die for.
Even now, some eight years since we returned to Florida to live year-round, I think about those seven summers spent in North Carolina, and what happened there, almost every day.
I fly the terrain in my mind’s eye as a red-shouldered hawk, swooping in to assuage my sharp hunger with live and tender bits, as any hungry predator might. I soar from the flatland piney woods of northwest Florida to the dusky mountain peaks of Western North Carolina, resting at last in my favorite nesting spot in Rice Cove, near Asheville.
It was a cool afternoon in late spring the first time I saw the Cove. A real estate agent took Buck and me there to see a 14-acre tract of land that started mid-pasture and went all the way to the wooded mountain peak.
After a while, we sent the realtor on his way and found a log to sit on. “I’m in love,” I said, drinking in the view from near the ridge top.
“Me, too,” Buck replied. We sat there until it was dark enough to find Orion. Except for the soft soughing sound of wind moving around between valley and peak, there was an absence of sound somehow deeper than mere silence. It felt downy soft, like some grandmother’s feather bed. We just sank into the quiet.
We bought the land, hired a contractor, and by September, the silence was broken by earth moving equipment. “You-uns is lucky,” we were told by the operator. “No hard pan. We won’t have to dynamite.”
Dynamite: my first real clue that a building project in the mountains was a world away from constructing a home on a scraped off lot in Florida.
The house was ready for us the next summer, and we moved in. Buck and I were dazzled by everything: the view of distant mountains, the nearby valley, the little steepled Beaverdam Methodist Church, and our neighbor’s cows in the pasture just below us. We would sit out on the open deck late on starry nights, holding hands and listening to the high pitched yips of coyote song on distant ridges and the tremulous downward spiraling wail of nearby screech owls.
Over the years, Rice Cove became much more than a summer place, and we stretched the seasonal margins at both ends, often arriving in April and not returning to Florida until late in October.
The summer landscape was an impressionist’s dream of wildflowers, a cascading vision of lush ferns, wood violets, and bright yellow sunspots. A large colony of white may-apples up in the back corner was a landmark for me, because close to it I could always find densely sweet tiny wild strawberries. Our chocolate Labrador retriever, Maggie, accompanied me on these expeditions. Maggie learned to pull her lips back so she could grasp summer-ripe blackberries without getting stuck by their sharp thorns.
The indomitable purple bull thistles, often smothered in blue swallowtail butterflies, raised their ugly, spiky stems to meet me at eye level whenever I would half climb, half walk up the steep incline of the back yard.
Rock piles stacked by tenant farmers from earlier generations stood as mute testimony to their efforts to scratch out a spot in the humus-rich earth to plant corn and other vegetables. I would think about resting for a moment on the rocks, but thoughts of coral snakes in the crevices always kept me on my feet.
Toward the end of our last full summer in the Cove, Buck, Maggie, and I drove to St. Louis, Missouri to pick up a much-anticipated 12-week-old black Lab pup. It was a joy to see the older dog and the pup bond. Our small family circle expanded, and the new baby was welcomed into the Cove.
The slope up to the ridge at the back of our house was an eyeful of seasonal perfection, but goldenrod, vetch, dark purple berries and snakeroot had grown thick and high. It wasn’t safe for a small pup, so we no longer wandered up that way.
I learned, shortly, that other hidden dangers lurked on the ridge top.
The local folk, generations deep in the Cove, built their own homes in the valley areas, where they could grow hay, corn, and tobacco, and where the winter was more hospitable. The valley areas suited their natural humility. In Rice Cove, neighbors still helped each other bring in the hay, and bound each other’s wounds as best they could. They shared secret berry picking spots, and revealed their private turnip patches to us, the Florida people. Sometimes, returning from an afternoon in nearby Asheville, we would find a generous watermelon waiting for us on the porch, round and full of juice.
The view from our deck was one of the highest spots in Rice Cove, about 4200 feet above sea level. Looking down, toward the southeast, I could see the little Methodist Church in the valley, only a few miles away. At night, twin lights on either side of the steeple provided a line of sight beacon.
That church was the heart of Rice Cove. Chimes set on a timer floated their quavering bells up the mountain every day at twilight, perfecting the day and drawing us into their orbit
The Beaverdam United Methodist Church is like many other rural churches dotting the countryside. Its congregation is rapidly aging, but not growing. Membership in the adjacent community cemetery is larger than that of the church. Grown children have left to find work in cities.
These good-hearted, somewhat shy folk know each other so well. In their Sunday morning service, they speak up to share their sorrows, concerns and joys. When Buck and I have been gone for a while, someone, usually the tall, thin old World War II Marine, Ed Bell, will speak up from the choir loft to say what a joy it is to see our lights up on the mountain at night, that it just makes him happy to see them. Many are too frail to even stand during the hymns. Those who are able bring in lush bouquets of freshly gathered flowers from their gardens to adorn the small sanctuary.
They count on the power of prayer. They don’t hold their hands up in the air or speak in tongues, but their faith is palpable through the sunbeams shooting sparks into the cool air as the choir sings, “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”
The first Sunday of November was our last Sunday in Rice Cove before returning to Florida. We had to go to the little church and say good-bye to our neighbors. Remembering it now, I feel a rock in my belly like it was yesterday, and I am right back there in the middle of my thoughts that morning. . .
They all knew about what happened up here one month ago, and have been sensitive enough to pretty much leave us to our grief.
Last week was too soon to face their sympathy, but Buck and I both thought by today we would be able to compartmentalize our feelings and get through it with a minimum of emotional shrapnel.
The church members were celebrating something called “All Saints’ Sunday.” Small votive candles adorned the altar, and their flames were lit to commemorate the lives of all the loved ones in the church family who had died during the past year. The church bell tolled once for each name read.
Later, Pastor Naomi announced they were doing something new in the afternoon: a Blessing of the Animals service. She invited everyone to bring their pets. I couldn’t meet a single eye. Buck and I sat like stones.
After the service, Buck declined invitations to the soup and sandwich lunch in the basement dining hall, and no one pressed. I slipped out the front door, the shock of cold air a bracing tonic. Most of the congregation went straight for the soup line, and so I walked along the sidewalk, head down, towards the car. Buck was still escaping compassionate entanglements inside the church. Looking up, I saw one of the men of the church standing in my path, working up to say something as he hitched up his worn brown corduroy pants.
“Heard the coyotes got your pup,” he said solemnly, looking me full in the face. “Reckon we’re all too blest with them around here.”
I felt dizzy, and couldn’t say a word. He dipped his head in a respectful motion, and turned toward the dining hall.
I watched Buck descend the stone steps alone. We wrapped our arms around each other and silently walked to the car.
The coyotes on the ridge top had reminded me that we were strangers here. The night it happened, Buck and I allowed Maggie and the pup to go down the stairs of our deck and around the pavement of the driveway to a downstairs entrance, a journey of moments. We ran down to open the door for them, but they were gone. We hollered ourselves hoarse into the black night. Finally, an exhausted Maggie returned without the pup. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but looked like she had been in a fight. At first light, Buck went up to the ridge top. He found our mutilated pup, and brought her remains back to bury.
Buck and I returned to our Florida home with troubled spirits and pictures in our minds that wouldn’t go away. Our flat pine woods with their long vistas seemed suddenly the best place in the world to be. We built a fence around the back yard for Maggie, and put the North Carolina home up for sale.
We returned to Rice Cove the next spring to prepare the house for sale. Our neighbors and friends at the Beaverdam Methodist Church greeted us like sorely missed family members.
The mountain folk here in the cove are uncommonly kind. Bare-bones gentility infuses their manner. Most of them came up hard. They have backs straight from pride, hands gnarly from hard work, and eyes – often that faded country blue –accented by fine lines starting at the corners and traveling into their mostly gray hair.
These folks are accustomed to bad news. They absorb it with seeming equanimity.
They pray often, and on their knees. It shows in their rocking gaits, dipping and swaying as they walk on worn out knees and hips.
Their prayers are of thanks, mostly, for the recent rain, the mild winter, the flowers – always the flowers – and prayers of intercession for their families, and neighbors, and our soldiers fighting in foreign lands, and their enemies, the family whose baby died, and the old couple still so much in love both in and out of the hospital staggering together to stand at the altar rail, past kneeling.
And for the nice couple from Florida, living in our midst six months out of each year for these past seven years; give them peace, Lord, and comfort in their continuing grief and distress over the death of their pup last October.
I think in some way our good neighbors in the cove felt responsible that we were leaving, that they failed to protect us and ours. It’s unfair, and untrue.
We got word that since our departure in November, and before dawn of the first day of the new year, ten coyotes in the area were hunted down and killed.
The beautiful glass house sold quickly. With everything packed up, we went down the mountain for a final perfect June morning Sunday service at Beaverdam Methodist.
I have said “goodbye” to people, places, and jobs or businesses many times. Even to one husband. More often than not, it has been with a profound sense of relief. I’m more likely to go around humming Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” or Carol Bayer Sager’s old cabaret tune, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In love.” Being upset about it is not my usual style. But that Sunday was different.
The small parking lot was almost full when we arrived. We walked in with Charlotte, one of the grand ladies of the church. The varnish on her wooden cane had been rubbed off under the hand hold. It had seen a lot of use, and clashed with Charlotte’s always elegant dress.
“Bill teases me about this old cane, but it was my mother’s,” she said, noticing my inquiring look. I asked Buck to take our picture. We stood together, arms around each other’s waists.
Walking on in, she explained that she didn’t usually like having her picture taken anymore since Bell’s palsy had paralyzed part of her face and stolen her smile. I said, “Charlotte, you don’t have to worry about that. We all know you’re smiling on the inside.”
We had arrived early enough to say our hellos and goodbyes, dispensing and receiving hugs and well wishes. By the time we walked in to find a seat, the congregation was on the third verse of their opening hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
It came time for the congregation to speak up with their concerns and their joys. Several had specific prayer requests. Our friend and neighbor, Jack, sitting in the pew behind us, spoke up and said, “This is a sad day. Buck and Beth are leaving the Cove to go back to Florida for good.”
Then his dear wife, Aileen, who had been such a “mama” to me, spoke up and said, “But oh my, it’s been such a joy, too, that they have been amongst us, so it’s both a sorrow and a joy.”
Charlotte, in the pew just in front of us, reached her arm back toward me, and said, “Beth told me something coming in the church today that will stay with me for a long time,” and then she recounted what I had said about her smiling on the inside.
Buck was already clutching one of my tissues in a death grip, and so with a lump in my throat, I stood up and delivered a small speech, turning to look at everyone, thanking them for opening their hearts to us, the summer sojourners. In a fumbling, emotional way, I tried to convey how they had gotten under our skins and into our hearts.
Sitting back down hard on the bench seat, I looked up to find Pastor Naomi’s eyes damp, too. She smiled, and asked if it would be okay for her to offer a prayer of “sending off” for us. We nodded. It was a surprise when she then asked us to come to the front, and invited everyone who would like to or could to come and surround us there, and to lay a hand on us.
We didn’t dare look at one another, but walked to the front. Naomi put one hand on Buck’s shoulder and one on mine. We faced the church folk as they slowly moved toward us, most limping or seeming to move painfully, reaching out to touch us. Everyone came who could manage it, so many there in that small space that the pastor told them if they couldn’t reach us, to touch the person in front of them, to make the connection that way. Dave, the organist, reached out and grasped my right hand. Buck’s arm as I glanced down looked like he had a line of human sticky notes attached, wrapped with all those sweet fingers.
Pastor Naomi prayed, and we ebbed back to our seats.
In our own ways, Buck and I both have spent a lifetime imagining we are in control. That Sunday, we were in control of nothing. Something had a hold of us.
The great hawk shuddered from her perch, feathers lifting and rearranging themselves for flight. She flew from the ridge top to the valley, preternaturally sharp eyes taking it all in: the lively little creek running along the road, where it converged with a rising river at the bottom; the old tobacco barn and neat bales of hay in the pasture nearby; and the carefully tended cemetery beside the church. She circled once more, then dipped her strong wings and found the glide path home.