The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wildwood Flower

By Bonita Murrah Phillips © 1986

Issue: March, 1986

I downshifted to second gear in the early morning fog as I came around the last corner of Caney Fork. In order to reach the clutch and gas pedals I had to sit on the edge of the towel that covered the seat's stuffing and springs. The seat was permanently caught in a long-legged position just right for Billy Jo. He had told me last night there weren't no need for me to come, that Maggie wouldn't listen to me or anybody else for that matter.

Four miles. That might not seem like a lot to townsfolk, but four miles back in the Appalachians can be a good 30 minutes of bumps, steep grades, sharp curves and washouts where streams have found an easier course downhill.

I had covered the first two miles before my swollen belly began to ache. Billy Jo had warned me I would be sore from all the bouncing I would get coming up here.

As I climbed steadily up I felt the jeep leaking air like a sieve leaked water. The wind whistling in had a sharp nip to it, and with one hand, I tried to pull Billy Jo's threadbare Army sweater tighter around my neck and stomach.

The trees and the lane dead ended at Maggie's. Pulling into the yard, I mashed both foot brake and emergency brake; Billy Jo's jeep don't stop the best in the world.

When I stepped down out of the jeep, my bare feet slid on the wet, slick clay and some oozed between my toes. Maggie's yard was a sight to see. There were empty cans spotting the red dirt, a rusted '52 Chevy squatted on four concrete blocks, its doors no longer there to close, and dirty white chickens pecked and flapped through it all.

Cupping my mouth with my hands I hollered long and slow, "M-a-g-g-i-e." My voice echoed across the mountains, skipping from cove to cove.

Leaning back against the faded blue fender, I tried to fix my weight evenly between both feet. I held my hands under my protrusion to cradle the baby I knew was there.

"What do you want, girl?" a voice rasped from the gloom of the forest that grew to the very edge of the yard.

Maggie stepped out into the weak sunlight. Her broad shoulders continued to hold evidence of the muscles gained from the ages she had worked the land, and the brown stain of snuff permanently embedded in the corners of her mouth could be plainly seen.

She walked unevenly toward me, her right leg slightly shorter than her left. No one knew why. Maggie probably had known at one time, but she claimed to have long since forgotten.

"I've come to see you, Maggie," I said as I pushed myself from where I leaned against the jeep.

A snaggled-tooth grin creased her weathered face. "Knew you was. Told Heber last night you'd be here any day."

I paid no attention to the mention of Heber. The fact that he was long since dead did not seem important, especially to Maggie.

"Well, what 'cha waiting for? Come on in." Maggie started up the rickety steps to the front porch. She clutched the rail with one hand and lifted the brown shapeless dress with the other.

We did not stop on the sloping porch. Two rockers leaned face forward on the walls, and four five-gallon cans full of last year's dirt waited to be filled with flowers and tomato plants. A corn shuck broom guarded the screened door that Maggie pulled open. The hinges complained whiningly as they were forced wide.

Maggie turned to look back at the sky. "Gonna rain 'fore the mornin's gone," she stated.

My eyes followed hers and I wondered how she could tell. The fog was hanging around and I assumed the dampness I felt came from the early morning dew.

The dark gloom became even deeper as I walked into the cabin. What little of the room I could make out while I waited for my eyes to adjust startled me, even after all these years. Maggie's country clutter was a lot of odds and ends, junk and dust.

Looking into the dimness reminded me that Billy Jo wanted no old things in our trailer. He didn't like a bunch of what-not pieces on shelves or any jars on the kitchen counter. He wanted our house to look slick, he said.

"Coffee." Maggie did not say it as a question, but I answered her anyway. She never offered milk or sugar. She didn't use any, and it never occurred to her that someone else might.

In the early morning twilight of the cabin Maggie grunted as she hunkered down in front of the wood stove that jutted into the only room of the house. She carefully stoked it with kindling.

My eyes had become regulated to the gloominess cut by the light cast through the one window of the room. I could see Maggie's iron bedstead snug in a corner. It must have been painted white at one time because flecks of paint stuck in places on the headboard and footboard. A "Snow of the Mountain" quilt was tucked in the corners of the mattress it warmed. The cherry wood dresser, built by Heber as a wedding gift stood beside the bed. Its round mirror had cracked soon after Maggie and Heber's shivaree. The drawers were missing handles so Maggie had driven nails in the middle of each so she could open them.

On the dresser lay klediments of Maggie's past: a dull silver hairbrush, with the initials MEM engraved on it had strands of grey hair twining through its bristles: A bronzed baby shoe held pins and buttons: A photograph of Heber with his hand resting on Maggie's shoulder as she sat in a spindly chair that seemed too fragile to hold her bulk, was propped against the broken mirror trying to hide a hole burned in the wood.

Moving my gaze on around the room, I looked toward the kitchen corner where Maggie now took up most of the floor space. There were no cabinets here, just open shelves with jars of green beans, yellow squash and pickled red peppers. Strings of onions and pods of leather-britches hung from the beams of the ceiling.

"Spring's on the way," Maggie said

It did not matter to her that the 20th of March had come and gone. To her pieces of paper with numbers and pictures had nothing to do with the arrival of spring.

"Feel it in my bones and saw it with my eyes," she continued. The blue speckled kettle on the stove rumbled ready to have the ground coffee dropped in it. Maggie did not use a strainer.

"That man of yours doing all right?" Maggie asked.

"Yes ma'am, Billy Joe is doing just fine." I hiked my old cotton blue dress higher so my knees could spread and allow my belly to settle between them. "He got a' promotion at the sawmill."

Maggie wrapped a piece of rag that had been part of a worn-out shirt about the handle of the coffee pot and set it on an iron trivet to let the grounds fall.

"You 'specting again?" Maggie watched the steam rise from the pot's spout. "This'n will be the third, won't it?"

"Fourth," I corrected.

Maggie poured the coffee into the oversized mugs. "Maybell will be calving soon." She poured half of her coffee from the cup into a cream colored bowl. She cupped the bowl with all fingers firmly attached. I noticed brown age spots had nearly covered the wrinkled skin of her hands. Some of the splotches on her forearm appeared scaly.

"I knowed why she done it." Maggie was talking about Maybell. "She's tired of these old hands pulling on her teats. She wants something to show for all that milk." Maggie tilted the steaming bowl of hot liquid to her lips.

"You been busy, Maggie?" I was trying to think of some way to say what I'd come for.

"Yep. Been cleaning up at the cemetery. Betty McMury died last week. Just keeled over and fell off the back porch." Maggie chuckled and her huge shoulders shook. "Pert near killed Jeb's hound dog when she landed on him."

She remembered her bonnet and untied the ribbon. When she had removed it, I could see the bun at the back of her head held the sparse grey hair so tight that it seemed to stretch the wrinkles of her forehead smooth. "Somebody done put red, plastic carnations on her grave."

The only sounds to be heard in the cabin were the occasional roll of thunder and my spoon continuously ringing the sides of my coffee cup.

"Maggie?" I asked, taking a deep breath. "When you coming down? Me and Billy Jo called the Home last month. They got a room open."

Maggie gazed around the cabin. "Gettin' dark, don't you think?" She shuffled to the lantern hanging by the bed and carried it back to the table. Pumping it hard, she shook the table and the doughy muscle hanging from her shoulder to her elbow flopped.

The first spatter of rain drops pinging off the tin roof echoed in the room. Maggie limped to the window of the cabin. Her once broad shoulders were straight as she stood stiffly in front of the yawning window staring through the rain glazed glass. The light touched her face and the pink of the scalp peeked through her wispy hair. Behind her the cabin waited in the bleakness of early morning for the lamp to be lit to bring a warm glow of relief to its dampness.

"Heber told me I belonged to these hills and they belonged to me. I ain't got no business in a town."

Turning back to the table she pulled a box of matches from her pocket. Scratching the stick across the rough surface on the side of the box, a bright flare erupted in the dark. Soon the glow from the lamp left only the furtherest corners in shadow.

"Billy Jo said to tell you he'd take your bed and chairs and anything else you wanted down off the mountain."

Maggie went to the pie safe and lifted out a pie that had one piece missing from it. "Been saving these apples just for this," she said. "Heber said if I made apple pie I'd sure to have company."

Maggie's cloudy blue eyes watched the knife slowly sink into the middle of the pie. "Little or big?" she asked.

"Little," I answered.

"Been pulling weeds for days. No one seems to get to the cemetery 'cept for funerals anymore."

She stared out the window at the rain that was coming steadily down. "I remember when we used to have Clean-up-Day once a year. Folks came from all around; walking, riding in buggies, and some even in beat-up trucks. We'd spread the quilts on the ground for the young'uns and work all day raking and hoeing."

Maggie picked up her piece of pie and bit off the sharp end of the "V." "By evenin' Heber and Joe Hooper would bring out their fiddles and music would fill the air."

I used the spoon from my coffee to dip some apples that had fallen from my piece of pie onto my saucer. "Maggie, the Home is state run. You wouldn't have to pay."

"Ain't going to be a long rain. The sun'll shine 'fore the mornin's lost." She stood her tall self up and toted the cups and saucers to the sink. The rattle of the dishes could barely be heard over the hard fall of the rain on the roof.

Hot water gushed from the spouts and soapy bubbles began to appear over the sides of the large sink.

"Got to get these washed. The garden will be in 'fore you know it." She, gently placed some jars from a frayed cardboard box onto the wide enamel counter of the sink.

She glanced past me and smiled exposing gums and a few yellowed. teeth. "Told you it wouldn't last long."

The rain had stopped as if someone had turned off a spigot. All that remained of the quick thunder shower was the drip, drip, drip of drops from the tin roof down the bare window and the black, mucky clouds billowing across the sky.

"Maggie." I was standing close to the sink my belly tightening and bulging where the baby kicked and stretched. "Billy Jo's wanting me to bring you back."

She slowly dried her hands on a ragged dish rag and turned toward me.

"Julia-Ann," she spoke firmly, "I've done raised Billy Jo since he was three-year old and his mama up and left for Detroit to find work. He knows me." She hobbled to the stove.

For a minute or so I sat and the opened grate of the stove softened the harshness of the room. Maggie took her dulcimer from the top of the clothes cupboard and sat heavily in her rocker by the wood stove.

"Billy Jo ever tell you how he would lay in that trundle bed over yonder saying, "Play me a tune, Maggie?" She spread her knees a tad and firmly planted the figure-eight instrument on them. "Play Wildwood Flower, he would say 'fore he dozed off."

She strummed down with the pick on the three strings producing a twanging, mournful tune. With her left foot tapping slowly she began strumming and singing. Her voice was high-pitched with a nasal melancholy. It harmonized with the dulcimer and broke as only a country song will let it.

"He taught me to love him and called me his flower,
That was blooming to cheer him through life's weary hour,
How I long to see him and regret the dark hour,
He's gone and neglected his frail wildwood flower."

Attending to her playing I recollected the story I'd heard about when Heber had given her this same dulcimer. He had sawed down a cherry tree to fashion a coffin for their stillborn son. With the wood left over he had formed the base of the dulcimer, and used scraps of spruce to make the top.

"Here you be, Miss Maggie," he had said as he thrust the dulcimer on the bed beside her. Ain't no young'un, I know, but it'll have to do."

The playing stopped and Maggie placed the dulcimer lovingly on a three-legged stool. "Hate to hurry you, but I've got work to do."

She limped to the back door and out onto the small closed porch. Bringing back a brown paper sack, she shook it open, and stuck jars of vegetables in it.

"That rain done gave me a week's worth of work, what 'tween the garden and cemetery." Lifting the bag on the table she said, "You take these for Billy Jo and the young'uns."

I rested the bag of jars on my hip as I followed Maggie to the front porch. "Will you put your mind to coming down next winter?" I had to ask.

The sun tried to force its way through the mouse-colored clouds. A light sheen could almost be felt as the warmth filtered its way from above.

"I'll tell Heber you came by." Then, she walked across the yard carrying a hoe and scattering muddy white chickens in all directions.

Hoisting my unyielding weight into the jeep, I unzipped the window, folded it inward and yelled, "Maggie, you'll die if you stay up here another winter."

At the edge of the trees Maggie leaned her big body on the handle of the hoe and stared over the misty mountains where the sunlight raced from crest to crest. "Well, child, one way or t'other, I'll be here." She turned and, using the hoe as a walking stick clumped up the hill.

For a minute or so I sat and watched the path become clearer as the haze burned off. Then, sliding to the edge of the seat that was wrapped with the towel mashed the clutch and turned the key.

I flipped a switch and watched the one windshield wiper halfheartedly clean the remaining rain drops from the glass. In first gear I bumped my way off Panther Ridge singing.

"I will twine and will mingle my raven black hair,
With the roses so red and the lilies' so fair...."