My dear Amelia, I raised you up to believe the wrong man was your daddy. I let him believe it too, long as he put food on the table and a roof over your head. But ever since your real daddy passed, my fingers have been itching to put the truth to paper. I won’t tell you what kind of man your daddy was. I’ll let my story do that and you be the judge. I won’t name him either, least not till the end. I’ll bet you a stack of Liberty half dollars that, before the end rolls around, you’ll know him without my telling you.
You won’t be set to read this for a long while seeing as how you’ve only got three years on this earth. But when the time comes and you lay eyes on these pages, you ought to know there are some downright ugly secrets in this story about your own kin and your mama to boot. There’s cursing, folks getting it on and entirely too much killing. You might not want to read the worst of it, like how our own country’s government stole folks’ land then locked them away for their troubles, or how the mama who nursed you through whooping cough once lured a man to a grisly death.
Still, I think a girl should know where she came from, even if it’s not all pretty. Now the mountains — there’s pretty for you. There was enough beauty in our mountains and the Hollow to make up for a world of warts. The life I knew there got disappeared by the government. That doesn’t matter. It’s as much a part of you as all the rest of it.
A Deal that Would Make the Devil Flinch
My Mama named me Ada Anabelle after her own self, which is just about the last name I would have chosen if she’d given baby me a say in it. I guess the joke was on her since, soon as I could talk, she didn’t much care to claim me as her own. Daddy did us all a favor and took to calling me Busy Bee on account of he said I was always buzzing around looking for what trouble I could get into. The Bee part stuck and that’s what Hollow folks called me.
The whole Hollow was named after us, after Daddy’s people anyway — Livingston. It was the Livingstons who built the first houses there more than a hundred years ago. They must have thought they’d found Eden when they first laid eyes on the place. Black woods set so close the light was green, violets underfoot, streams cold enough to shock even in summer.
In all those years between the first Livingstons and me, only the chestnut trees changed. They got done in by blight when I was an ankle-biter — the same year cousin Samuel went moonlight coon hunting dead drunk and stumbled his fool self to a broken neck at the bottom of Thompson’s Gorge. Put your nose up close to their trunks and you might have thought an angry bear had its way with them. They were all torn up with gashes where the blight’s sores split their bark. But even dead those trees stayed standing. I used to pretend they tracked who came and went from the Hollow, good as any hired guards. Turns out they couldn’t keep the bad away.
I passed by those trees plenty but, when I first laid eyes on Miles Everheart, I still hadn’t gone farther than to Luray with my Daddy and to Richmond to see Mama’s family. I reckon that was why I was so eaten up with need to be with Miles. He wasn’t much older than me, and there he was about to cross the country and see places I could only visit in books. Being with him felt like maybe I could claim a little part of his adventure for myself.
Now’s as good a time as any to tell you I have two beaus in this story. There was Miles. I’m just about to spell out how I fell for him fast as a rock tossed off a ledge. The second one, Torch, started out as a boy who grew up with me on the mountain. We were so much alike we could have been that pair of Siamese twins from England I read about in the paper once, except instead of being attached by an ass cheek, we shared one mind. I’ll get to Torch in a spell.
Miles was a government photographer come from Washington to take pictures of the Hollow for an office called the Resettlement Administration. His boss told him his photographs would make the case for helping poor people down on their luck. He believed it and so did I when he told me. It’s easy to look back now and see us as fools. I’ll remind you that, until a few years ago, we’d never heard of the government stealing land away from anybody — at least not white folks.
Miles spent a month in the Hollow before he got his next assignment. Those weeks shine in my memory. I had a fondness for him that was fierce at its beginning. The first day we met at MacArthur’s Store he offered me five dollars to show him the Hollow. That was a whole hell of a lot of money to me so I agreed even though common sense told me leading a city man around was going to be more than five dollars’ worth of trouble. I made him pay me half up front and came up with a plan to ditch him. I took him straight up the mountain on the steepest, rockiest trail I knew. Hard as I tried to shake him, Miles stayed with me the whole way to the top. I’m still stumped about how he managed it. He slipped and slid so much in his city shoes you’d have thought he was a newborn fawn strapped into a pair of ice skates. He never complained once though, not even when he fell on his ass in the briar patch I went out of my way to take him through.
I agreed to meet him at MacArthur’s again the next day. I noticed right away he’d gone and bought himself some sensible boots and jeans that would stand up to a few briar pricks. I also noticed he was handsome in a fine-boned, citified way. He looked painted with one color, a sort of hazel all over, except for his lips which were a bubblegum pink and seemed an advertisement to kiss him, which I did later that day. It wasn’t long before he was nothing but hungry hands and eyes whenever it was just us two. He had a nervous air about him that got soothed when he was alone with me. I liked having such an effect.
We laid together in the orchard the day he left the Hollow. He took my picture and sent it to me months later. In it, my skin was the silver of mercury. My black hair twisted wildly as Medusa’s snakes. My green eyes teased his camera. He said he carried a print of that same photo in his bag. I liked to think of him looking at me, even from far away.
I’m glad I haven’t forgotten that last day on the mountain with him. Even the grass remembered us for a while, pressed flat by two bodies, bruised by our romp before he left to go back to the world. Maybe I shouldn’t mention anything to you about me being with a man who wasn’t my husband. A proper mother, like the ones here in the city, wouldn’t. God knows there’s never been much proper about me. I was educated. Mama was the Hollow school teacher and she saw to that. But I’ve always used words I shouldn’t, like goddamn and bastard, and I let my heart get so hot it boils over. Mothers and girls never had much use for me, but boys and men always seemed eager to see me happy.
After the snakes killed Daddy, there were plenty of boys, men even, who came around with apple butter jars or scratched and bleeding arms full of the best huckleberries from the thistly patch up on goat’s trail. If you want to know, I kissed a few of them. But Miles was the first man I ever laid with. I’m not ashamed to say the love I had with him, wrestled to its end in the cool shade of the apple trees, was sweeter to me than the best whiskey. Yes, your mama has tasted whiskey too. I hope you won’t take it too hard if, in the course of reading these pages, you find out I’m not as ladylike as you might have hoped.
His boss at the Resettlement Administration aimed to make Miles a happy carpetbagger — Alabama and Arkansas, then the Midwest and on to California (where I’d heard the land was so rich, a strawberry seed spit into the dirt would bloom into a plant in a week’s time). It satisfied him to know his pictures would do good, that Uncle Sam would use them to make the case to the American taxpayers for helping folks down on their luck. I got my first letter from him when he settled in down south. When I looked up from those hushed pages, I was wading through a sea of white Alabama cotton alongside Negro pickers, black as wet fieldstone, glory-to-God hymns rising from their wasted bodies like steam. The wicked Dixie sun prickled our skin, stung our eyes with sweat. Prickly cotton plants tore at my clothes, jealous lovers, greedy for another touch. I was sweet on Miles before he left. Soon as I read that letter, I was sure I’d fallen whole hog in love.
When it came time for me to write back, I was afraid my letter would be the end of it. Mama had us write plenty of practice letters at school, but my letter to Miles was only the second one I’d ever mailed. The first was for a school project. Mama found us a group of pen pals at a school in Washington, D.C. and I wrote to mine about the dead, bloated deer that exploded all over Daddy when he hit it with a stick because he was too drunk to think better of it. Everybody in class got a return letter but me, so I’d come to believe I wasn’t cut out for correspondence.
I steered clear of dead, rotting things and wrote about my feelings for Miles instead. Mama always said I put too much stock in feelings. She called it a sickness and said I ought to hope for a cure, but back then I would have picked death over living without someone who could make the letters light up when they said my name. Miles did that in the beginning. So do you, sweet girl, every time you say Mama.
My mama was healthy as a horse on spring grass, free from the kind of sentiment that ailed me. I suspected it was because I’d been such a calamity as a daughter. She had to harden her heart to weather the disappointment. I used to try to change myself to please her. I only succeeded once in a while and, when I did, her goodwill flitted away again quick as a hummingbird.
There was some ugly business between Mama and me the day I got that first letter from Miles. I remember because I was all goo-goo eyed after I read my name written in his hand and not at all ready for what came next. A state man called Rowler was the cause of it. He came by our place and said the state had given our land to Uncle Sam for a park. We were to be out in five months or be considered at odds with the law.
Mama told him we’d sell. Our land was worth fifteen dollars an acre, she said. She made a big speech about how we wouldn’t take any less for it. While she talked, Rowler looked me up and down and licked his lips like I was a slice of scrapple fresh from the frying pan. He was the kind of husky white man who had a layer of pasty fat on him from sitting on his ass in a desk chair, his cheeks flushed pink from sneaking sips of whiskey. His brown mustache twitched even when he wasn’t talking, until I thought it might jump off his face and scurry into a hole in the floorboards.
He told Mama we wouldn’t get squat since Daddy’s people never filed papers with the county courthouse. I figured as much. Daddy always said the Livingstons didn’t need papers when a handshake and a man’s word would do. Seems like we didn’t need a deed when the whole goddamned Hollow was named for us.
Mama was fit to be tied. Rowler grinned a pleased-with-himself grin. Then he tried to make a deal with Mama that would have made the devil flinch.
“Your girl looks like she sure could keep a man warm at night,” he said. “If she had a notion to show me some kindness, I’d see to it you get one of the houses the government’s built for your people, down on Resettlement Road.” I took a sideways glance at Mama and saw she looked confused. Rowler must have seen it too because he spoke plain as he could and still lay claim to a shred of decency. “It’ll take some time with your daughter to bring out my generous nature. Without it, you’re on your own.”
Mama went mute. He told her to take some time to think it over. He’d be back.
Me and Mama had a whopping row after he left. I was mad as hell at her for not telling him off soon as he opened his mouth about me. She said didn’t I know what shock was and how could she be expected to have her wits about her after what he’d asked. But when I pressed her to swear she’d set him straight the next time, she wouldn’t do it. She just kept on about how we were in a heap of trouble if we got kicked off our land with no money to show for it.
“Just flirt with him a little until we get one of those houses,” she said. “Let him think he’s got a chance.”
I lost my temper. “He wants more than that,” I said. “Are you planning to whore out your own daughter?” She gave me two good smacks across the face and that was the end of it. Mama and I were always oil and water. Rowler shaking us up did more harm than good. He was after me to lay with him and all Mama could do was chew it over. I wasn’t a nervous girl, but I was near about having kittens over it. I had to sneak a sip or two of white mule (that’s what us mountain folks called whiskey) to get to sleep that night.