There is life here. Real life. Nothing from a novel or a memory or a postcard. It is nearly June, and the mountains are alive. Up in the holler, where we all have recollections buried, treasures and heartaches alike, you can hear the breath and essence of this sacred place. Honest and clean air, a hundred years old, whistles through the canopies of ancient hickory and cedar trees that are even older than the breeze.
Now just up the dirt road there, on the right, is Old Man Mundy’s place, still standing after all this time, tin roof rusted and porch falling in. The Old Man has been gone for twenty years, but it’s still his place. That willow tree in the side yard there was the very one that his boy hung himself in, that sorrowful Johnny Mundy, and to this day, nobody knows why he up and removed himself from this world. Some souls are poisoned with things the blessed of us can’t understand.
And on up in the holler, around the bend of the creek, where legions of Monarch butterflies light in the shine on the bank atop the slickness of the rocks, the place where the wildflowers lean toward the everlasting sun, is where Papaw used to take us fishing. We caught redeye and bluegill and made him take them off our hooks and throw them back in. This was real, memory or dream or not. Real life. And if you listen, beyond the breeze through the ancient trees, you can still hear Papaw’s chuckling and, perhaps, even detect the scent of the cherry tobacco he carried in his pocket.
But there’s a reunion here today, no proper invitation required. We ain’t formal folks, and we prefer it that way. We’ve known each other for years. For a lifetime. And what’s left of it. See, we don’t take this life for granted. We know that we’ll be dead a lot longer than we ever were alive. And that’s just the way things are here. You know it to be true.
Up in the holler, on down the old road, the old homeplace sets back against the pastel of the rising ridge, all bright and beckoning in the afternoon shine, and Big Ruby is grilling up short ribs over charcoal and hickory and Mama has a pig roasting in the ground, scarlet coals glowing above, and even though Papaw is gone on to the great yonder, he can smell the goodness, too. His lilt of a chuckle still glides on the sweet breeze, like a song you know better than a hymn. It’s like that in the holler, you know. Yes, you know. And the cousins stand out in the yard, drinking their tea and homemade blackberry wine, and telling tales that everybody hopes ain’t true, about how somebody saw the ghost of Johnny Mundy the other day, still swinging from that willow tree.
Up in the holler, beyond where the trucks can go, are untouched caves and an old mine shaft, and it’s been told that’s where the body of Riley Sheets still lies, his bones still dressed in the same clothes he wore the day he messed with that Whited girl, and her brothers did swiftly away with him, never to be a nuisance again to any good and sweet Appalachian sister. And on up in the holler, beyond the shaft, where the briers and rhododendron are so thick and wild that nobody could ever get beyond, there are mountain panthers, black as midnight, and their screams can be heard after the darkness of the evening sets in, foreboding a warning to the lot of us when they’ve been spooked by something meaner than they are. There is not a dark anywhere like this. It is deep and endless, just like the ocean that Mamaw has never seen.
Now God might vacation in Florida, but he lives here. And you can bet your last dollar that wherever God lives, the Devil makes his rounds. We have our share of loss and sorrowfulness to prove it. Ask Johnny Mundy, if you ever see him. But for now, the feast awaits us, courtesy of Big Ruby and the girls. And we will partake until our sides beg for mercy and still want more. That’s how good it is. And we will listen to the sincere and God-fearing thankfulness of Mamaw’s blessing echo off the ridge, and then to the mountain, and then into eternity, and back to us again.
The cousins make a fire out in the yard, and play their guitars and sing louder than the whirring crickets as the sun drops behind the ridge, and Mamaw takes off her gingham apron and dances the flatfoot out in the yard, barefoot, and she looks toward Heaven. She will be there soon, and we know it. She does, too. But it’s just fine with her. That’s where Papaw is.
Just down from the old homeplace, the kids gather in a ruckus of a gaggle down by the creek, and look down yonder to the willow tree in Old Man Mundy’s lonely and dark yard, waiting patiently, as we’ve all been taught to do. They see nothing.
Beyond the fire, on up in the holler, back where none of us can pass, the shrill scream of a black mountain panther sounds, all miserable and foreboding. We know what it means. It is unmistakable. And we know, beyond the shadows that those ancient trees cast, that we are not alone.
This is real life. And up in the holler, in the days before June, we can testify that everything lasts forever here. However long that is. None of us are forgotten. Not Papaw or poor Johnny Mundy. Or Mamaw, Big Ruby, or you. Not in the holler. And when our last summer comes, we will simply lean, like the wildflowers, right by the legion of Monarchs where Papaw waits for us to fish with him again, toward the everlasting sun.