I received notice that my short story, Rural Legend, a tale I’d penned back in 1999, had won first place at the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Symposium for 2014. This honor means more to me than words can express. Not only for the honor itself, but because the story itself is, for the most legendary part, true as the proverbial Gospel.
(reprised and revisited, 2014)
Poor Naomi Proffitt had come down with the worst kind of homesickness, the sort for which she had found no cure. She longed for a place she had never been, a home to which she could not return, a haven that didn’t exist upon this earth. There is no word that I know of to describe such an aching grief, but Naomi had it just the same.
It was the summer of 1929, a sultry afternoon in dog days when not even a hint of a forgiving breeze offered itself to clear some of the madness out of that stifling house. In the east bedroom, Naomi lay in willful agony, praying to God with her last breaths to lead her to that place she dreamed of. She knew it wouldn’t be long. She had put enough arsenic in her coffee to kill off half of Big Creek.
Naomi was married to the Devil himself. That’s what the talk was in those days, anyway. Tom Proffitt was Hell bound, and even the good Pentecostal mouths down over the hill would have said the same. The Proffitts had lived in the imposing white house overlooking Big Creek for as long as anybody could remember. They had no children and rarely had any company to speak of. The Devil’s growling voice could be heard on most nights as it echoed down the hill. Naomi could be heard soon after, wailing and praying.
On the morning of her chosen fate, Naomi had washed and hung out bed sheets on the clothesline in the backyard. Ol’ Pastor Mullins, the very one that had married the Proffitts fifteen years earlier, was making his witnessing rounds on the outskirts of town. He strolled across the bridge with his Bible and walked up to the Proffitt house. He cornered Naomi right there amidst the bed sheets and commenced a proper sermon about the Rapture and the coming of Jesus.
Such talk made Naomi nervous. She politely feigned a coughing spell and excused herself, but it was already too late. The church talk must have woken the Devil from his drunken slumber, as Naomi had feared it would. Tom Proffitt flew out the backdoor in a furious hurry, and with bourbon soaked words he accused her of sneaking behind his back and cohortin’ with ol’ Pastor Mullins, and he informed the dumbfounded preacher that he’d never see a dime of his money or his wife again. Naomi was mortified and heartsick. That was all she could take, and that was the moment she decided to leave.
After Naomi’s coffee had kicked in, the Devil came running like a madman down off the hill and across the bridge, hollering for help. His wife had fallen suddenly and strangely ill. The neighbors who came to survey the scene were struck by the sight of Naomi Proffitt lying atop her rose chenille quilt in the east bedroom of the house, her body writhing and shaking, her face frozen in an expression of odd serenity. Her fingers curled inward toward their palms in a bizarre manner, as did her toes. That’s a sign of poisonin’, one of the neighbors said. A cup of what was left of a lethal concoction of Maxwell House and rodent poisoning was left sitting on the kitchen counter. A spoon laced with a silvery residue rested on a cloth napkin next to the cup.
Naomi died in that room soon after, her fingers and toes still twisted oddly inward. Her I do to the Devil was done. Her body was covered with one of the sheets that she had washed and hung on the clothesline earlier in the day.
Before the next year’s dog days, the body of Tom Proffitt was found beneath the bridge on the bank of Big Creek. Nobody knew for certain what had killed the Devil, but even decent folk praised the Lord that he was gone and the world was finally rid of him at last.
Mamaw and Papaw Silcox bought the white house on the hill in the mid thirties, unaware at first that some woeful woman had up and removed herself from the world in one of the five bedrooms. Mamaw learned of Naomi soon after settling in. Those Pentecostal women down over the hill didn’t let a week go by without getting to the old news and gossip, and they had been there when it had happened so they knew firsthand, they assured her. Mamaw had already suspected something wasn’t right with that place. She felt it in her bones, she said. She wasn’t psychic, she insisted. Lord no. It just didn’t sound very Christian at all. She would say she was sensitive instead, and be done with any further talk of it.
Thanks to Mamaw’s sensitivity, the first time she saw Naomi Proffitt, the apparition didn’t bother her in the least. She would be frying chicken and fixing buttermilk biscuits on her wood stove, turn to get a spoon of lard and catch the passing vision of a grayed, opalescent woman floating past the door to the east bedroom. I don’t believe in no ghosts, she told us. But I believe in Naomi. I seen her a hundred times.
The east bedroom was Daddy’s room in those days. He recalled humid afternoons in dog days when he would sit by the window and paint scenes of endless oceans that he had never seen and landscapes of mountains that he had, and the room would grow cold even as the oils permeated his canvas, and the vague silhouette of a woman would cast her shadows on the walls in the very light of day. Old coins appeared in odd places. Footsteps could be heard on the long front porch when nobody was out there. Mamaw would see a woman in the kitchen some nights when the moon shone brightly enough. She’d be standing by the counter, her transparency evident, her hand stirring something in a coffee cup that wasn’t there anymore.
Never minding the talk of the Pentecostal neighbors down over the hill and Papaw’s spinster sisters that would never set foot in the house for fear of specters, life was mundane and peaceful on the hill above Big Creek. Naomi never hurt a soul, Mamaw insisted. She was just a poor wayfaring stranger, just as the age-old lyrics say. We all had tales to tell about the times we saw or felt her or heard her footsteps. The Silcoxes lived in the house for all of five decades, more than twice as long as the Proffitts. They raised six children there. They survived harsh winters and that sweltering Virginia summer humidity. They suffered the drowning of their youngest son in the creek when he was two. They saw ten grandbabies born, of which I was one. And so did Naomi.
I spent the first years of my life in that house, back in the days when Daddy was still a struggling artist and scraping to save his meager paychecks to buy us our own house. Mamaw swore to God that she would find old coins in my cradle. Gifts from Naomi. I only saw her once for myself, back when I was too young to consider that she might just have been a pure figment of shadow and light. She revealed herself to me, that gray and weightless lady, and she made Papaw’s rocking chair sway back and forth for me once. I remember that as much as I remember my own name. I grew up with Naomi. I never feared her. I never knew that all houses didn’t have their own souls like that one did. Mamaw sold the house after Papaw died. He had been an old man since he was forty; too much coal dust and worry, I suppose. The house held too many years of memories and mental visions, and it was much too large a house for one aging widow to keep up. I helped Mamaw pack her trinkets and curios. I remember my thoughts as I sat on the concrete steps of the front porch as I had so many times before. I felt a solemn sadness for Naomi, who would be left behind. Mamaw sat in the east bedroom for half a day by herself, looking at her picture books and talking to nobody we could see, and I overheard her telling Naomi that she would sure miss her, and she was welcome to come with her, if she could.
As we drove down the hill and away, I looked back a final time. I imagined Naomi was sad to see us go. I watched as the house grew further away, and then finally disappeared. I suspected Naomi would not accept the invitation to leave. The new place in Lake Park became Mamaw’s house. But as I suspected, we never saw Naomi again.
I had vivid recollections of the old place on Big Creek. I dreamed of that house from the time I was seventeen until last night. Odd dreams, too, the sort that lingers long after the waking hours of morning. Those nocturnal visions made me feel as if I’d forgotten something. They kept reminding me that some things are more permanent than others. I felt in my bones that the old place had not forgotten me. At last, I felt the same longing for somewhere that Naomi had once felt. That aching, that grief for a place that I cannot return. It was, indeed, the worst sort of homesickness.
Last August, during the faithful dog days, Daddy and I made a trip to Big Creek. I had wanted to go back and see the home place again, to take some photographs for my own picture books and converse with the past. I walked across the bridge that Papaw had rebuilt with railroad ties way back before I was born. The house stood faithfully in the distance, as if it had been waiting for our return. From the end of the bridge, it appeared exactly the way it did when I had solemnly looked back at it through the car window.
We got close enough to see the damage that time and negligence had done. No one had made it a home in a long while. An old sofa sat on the porch where Papaw’s rocking chair used to be. The concrete steps that I used to sit on were cracking and falling apart in places. The white paint that was once crisp and clean was eroded and eaten away by several decades of weather. I was unable to peer through the dirty windows. The wood of the old porch creaked beneath my footsteps.
I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t muster a single one. We just stood there and imbibed the nothingness that had stolen the places of my grandparents, their children, and Naomi. Daddy hid his misty eyes from me and headed back to the car, but I remained awhile longer. I could have easily pushed the front door open. The lock was surely rusty and frailer than time itself.
I didn’t or wouldn’t have. The inside was just as neglected as the outside; I didn’t have to see to know beyond a doubt. All the dreams I’d had of the old place had been a peculiar brand of beautiful magic, tokens reminiscent of days that I’ll never see again. Christmases and Sunday dinners. Sipping Mamaw’s hot chocolate in front of the fireplace on frigid winter nights, and her laughter echoing through the house.
It had become the home to which I could not return. If I had forced the door open, all of it would’ve been gone, sucked clean out and taken away with the dwindling hum of jar flies. I stood with my hands on the warmed and faded wood of the front door, and I imagined Mamaw and Papaw were on the other side in the living room, watching Gunsmoke or playing Patsy Cline on the phonograph. I envisioned the red bricks of the fireplace still shining and polished. I saw Daddy’s paintings still adorning the walls. And I wondered if Naomi was still there. I wondered if she remembered me as I remembered her. I am no longer a child. Perhaps she wouldn’t know me now.
“Naomi?” I said out loud. I waited. There was no noise, no answer.
That was the only word I could muster. Naomi. After all, it is quite a formidable task to produce mere words in the presence of a legend. That’s what it all has become. That house, Mamaw and Papaw Silcox, and Naomi Proffitt. Rural legends, they are.
I took the photographs that I wanted and left all resting things to their sleep again. As I retreated down the steps, a small object reflected sunlight and caught my attention. On the faded concrete, near the very place I used to sit and watch the sun drop behind the pastel ridge, was a weathered 1929 penny. The winds changed and a forgiving breeze swept through the pines and tousled my hair. With my gift tucked in my pocket, I turned to look back at the old imposing house as I walked down the hill, and I wondered for a second time if I’d ever return again.
© Anna C. Wess, 1999