I pray you never know the loneliness of my girlhood. So terrible you never realize it settle deep until a voice spoke that ain’t your own. And your mind hunger for those words. It could have been the dumbest farmer but you soak up his complaints about bushel prices just to look him in the eyes, feel him in the room. His pettiness became salve to an ache you didn’t even know you had. You was just glad to hear a voice other than yourself.
My father welcome strangers because the Bible say it entertain angels unawares. Not that we got many visitors, but they come and my father set them all down. He’d say, Do you have an hour to spare? A few bird and plant fellows, a preacher or three, or a young man sick with love were offered fine hospitality. But not all men told tales, just set quietly. My father watch these with care until with them they together walk to off our land.
This one say he a wanderer with an itch to see this blessed nation. Ask my father if he’d ever read this Emerson right here. My father say he didn’t see much need of reading outside scriptures. He say That’s alright the Bible says it too. Well sir, I just believe a man should at one time or another step outside himself meeting his mettle. Devour himself in the wilderness to live authentic and true. My father say nothing, but lean in his chair as my mother serve bitter coffee from the fire. Like David, sir, he say, playing his harp and singing Psalms with sheep. David the true man I try to be.
My father say Yes but shouldn’t a man leave his father and cleave unto his wife? A tree grow in the wilderness, yes, but only because its roots cling to the earth. It grow slow, yes, but deeper, wider before taller. What of a wife? Or family, friends? Anybody to care you on the backside of nowheres, yes? The freeze come along soon and your metal be frozen in the earth.
The wanderer say back Sir, I tell you the truth. I used to be a college man. And, yes, I had a bride for after graduation when I’d put out my sign. But I had no patience for law. Sir, I mean no disrespect but it seemed like a fairy tale. Laws exist only for we all agree they do. No sir, it wasn’t real. Just a dream. Just a silly expensive dream.
My father say There be something in your ruddy complexion that speaks of my grandfather. They all crazy, our grandfathers. Leaving their homes for some mountain in the new land. Fight off Indians and bears. He carry all that old world in his spit and sweat right to this spot and built himself this house, the house where we sit. Scraped, sorrowed, laughed and spent nights keeping to himself under the stars while my father as a boy sat vigil on the porch with fear his daddy been gorged out there. Until my grandfather come back at sunrise with tears in his eyes. Crazy. They were all crazy.
This is a mighty fine house, sir, built on the fine foundation of exertion and spittle with four stout walls rising up to the Almighty’s face up here on this gorgeous mountain. You and your family are caretakers and inhabitors of his spirit, this fine abode. In truth, I envy men like your grandfather for no such journeys exist for the brave and fearless, if such men be had in our days.
Winter come early that year, just as father say. It was unseemly, of course, for the young man to stay in the house my Grandfather built on account of my sisters and me, so he slept in the barn after sharing our table each night. My father permit him a small fire on the account he watch after it. By the time the snow start falling, he was glad for it, too. The snow come first at night in big wet smears shake from the sky. Later when the sun rose in the valley, one flake become two and two flakes were many. As the day wore and we did our chores, it continue to fall. The second day was much the same as the first.
On the third night of snow, momma bid me run some more wood for the young man’s fire with warnings I stick close to the fence. I argue with her—doesn’t every daughter at that age argue with her mother?—but she say Fine. Freeze to death. We’ll bury you in the spring when you thaw. I carry the wood and high-step it along the fence to the barn. I see why momma say stay with the fence. I couldn’t see much in front or behind me, all I see was knee-deep snow.
I drop wood in front of him and turn go when he say Little girl, dost thou know who made thee? I must confess I never heard anyone speak like that, at least not in those days. He say Never the mind and come sit a moment by the fire. I watch him.
The young man say Do you hear that? Shh, listen. Do you hear that? He was right. A bird scoot and coo somewheres up in the roof. But the fire was dim so I see not the roof of the barn. If I raise my arms—those gangly arms of my girlhood—the blackness swallow them.
He say he hear that bird every night. Up in the eaves the sparrow hath found her an house, he say. Where she comes, I do not know. Where she goes, I can only imagine. If I’m still, she’ll flutter to the other side of the barn and I might glimpse her belly during her short trek. That little bird, he say, a mystery on both ends with confusion in the middle.
He ask me What do you know, little girl? But I look at my wet boots and puddles by the fire in silence. After a time, he say That’s alright. Everybody knows what they know. Not me, though. No, little girl, I’m just like you. I don’t know anything. My only concern is what I don’t know. I wanna go beyond, go beyond what I know. I wanna go beyond the going beyond. I always wanna know what lies after.
I ask if he means heaven.
No not at all, he say, When I decided to leave my home and my learning and my fiance, I was so sad. And it sat in me deep, taking root and spreading tendrils, choking everything. All I knew was this deep pain. I even walked to a creek to kill myself. Slice my throat with a knife right there in the waters because if you meet yourself on the path to truth and you stand in your own way, you gotta. I realize I want to know what was beyond this sadness—
While he spin this sad tale, the sparrow stir a racket. When out of the vast beyond it flew down between us, me and the young man, and dip right into the small fire. With her wings alight, she fly away to the far corner. A little ball of flame floating up to the ceiling higher and higher. Naturally, the young man’s story trail off the way we do when stupefied and we both crane our necks up to the ceiling to watch the flapping fire hidden under far eaves.
Hell fire the young man say You better go wake your daddy. I was confused and kept looking to the ceiling, not understanding his meaning. Run as quick as you can, little girl, he shout, Run, now! By this point I smell smoke. So, I run through the door of the barn, high-step it through the snow by the fenceline yelling for my father.
By the time we make it back, my father and me and my older brothers, we see the walls turn into consuming fire. You damn fool my father shout with all manner of insults with his breath puffing out of his mouth. I said you could have a small fire but you careless bastard didn’t care and so on he went yelling at the young man in front of the barn burning like a candle while the snow kept drop dropping from heaven. The young man try explain the bird but my father ain’t listen. My father tell one of my brothers to take me back to the house right now. We turn go.
I seen their shadows in front of the inferno from a distance. I seen them scuffle and my brothers throw punches at the young man. Then, the shadow of the young man disappear and moments later his scream reaches my ears and echoes the valley. My brother say Come on, sister, we gotta go back. Nothing to see. That man ain’t bothering us no more.
But a queerest wind blew up from behind my brother and me. We turn to watch the flames from the barn start to lick the thickset clouds above. And the wind blew and blew and blew until the fire move from the barn to the clouds. The sky itself was aflame, rolling hot with rage. When I say this to the men later they don’t believe me, but I see it to this day. The heavy snowclouds caught fire. This is gospel truth I tell till I die.
Well, the snow melt from the heat and the great field quickly turn into water rushing here and there in little rivulets down the mountain. My brothers and father and me all run back to the house through mud up to our shins as the earth gave up her hardness. The sky billow.
The light from the sky’s fire reveal all as we ran. The house great-grandfather built had a sagging roof and chipped paint. The upstairs windows been long broken so my father place a piece of wood in their place. The left side of the house look as if was about to collapse since fore I born. My father say all get inside but I stand watch the sky. My father say from the porch that I be safe and this all over in the morning. They ran into the house.
But the wind blow once more and the flames go overhead until the little tongues from the skyfire lick the broken windowpane and slide down the the back of the house until roaring. I hear my family shout terrors. They burn alive in the house great-grandfather built.
I scream running down the mountain, heaven’s fire lighting my way. I slip and fall so many times in the mud and muck. My boots cake with mud, my mouth taste of mud, my hair mat with mud as the rushing waters of thawed snow dig deep channels down. It was quite a time.
Near the road, though, a man step out of the woods. Even though I’m seventy-two, I see him in my dreams and I wake up sweating. He show up often. But near the road at the edge of our property a man step out of the woods. His face is fire and his hands is fire. And the fire man look just like my wanderer, the young man. But I don’t think it’s him. His face was much older and the clothes were funny. But his face is familiar. He glare and seethe at me while I stumble and fall out onto the road. As I walk to the neighbors, I turn. I seen the fire man walk back and forth, back and forth, just pacing the entrance of our mountain, spitting despair and sadness. He walk alone on his mountain.
But morning was all ash in the wind as the snow fall.