Writing My Way Home: Silas, Swago, and The Farm Dogs

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

I have very specific memories of the first time I ever saw certain people. It’s an odd phenomenon in that I don’t know any reason when I first lay eyes on these folks why the memory instantly becomes fixed. In each case, however, such people become important to my life. My husband is one of these “fixed memory” people. I can still see him, opening a glass door and striding across a lobby with a scowl on his face.

Silas House is a fixed memory person for me, too, but it a different way. It was not Mr. House in the flesh, but his written words that fascinated me, became fixed. His environmental column in the New York Times, “My Polluted Kentucky Home,” reads like a creative nonfiction essay to me, more so than a national column of an environmental activist. And yet I can’t fully defend that perception. It is clearly an activist’s narrative. But it’s edgy, tight with a barely contained rage. When I read it, I can feel Mr. House holding it together as it tries to bolt out his control. The emotions and the realities behind “My Polluted Kentucky Home” are so muscled and dangerous, only a master of the written word could begin to manage it.

Silas House is such a master.

I referenced the column in 2011 as an inspiration for essayists writing about place. Going back to the column, I am reminded that every section is a gut-punch. Still, the paragraph that knocked me out 3 years ago remains the one that gets me now:

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

 

This physical experience of prolonged generational grief with no end in sight resonated in my heart. It took up residence there and made sense out of something, or at least started to make sense of something, that haunts me. I am a native West Virginian. My family has lived in Appalachia for generations, and I have struggled to find words for the experience of a rupture with the land that feels like a problem in my body. And it is exactly as Mr. House says it is. It’s a kind of inheritance. It was passed to me. And as in his narrative, it was not passed with intention so much as without choice. Some people call this Appalachian fatalism. I am still trying to understand what I will call it.

When someone puts words to your problem, he often shines a light on the way out. At the very least he allows you to see your problem in a new way. I wanted to know more about Silas House, and discovered his online literary publication, Still: The Journal. In this space, I found more expression of the more complex elements of Appalachia. I found images and words and ideas that reflected some of the layers that I know from growing up there. Much material on Appalachia traffics in stereotypes and simplicities. Still explicitly is not interested in stereotypes or cliches. It has a mission to illuminate what is real, and truly human, and intricate about this mysterious and hard place some of us call our native home. So I recommend Still to you without reservation, both for seeing something you may never have seen about this part of the world, and for some lovely art.

My essay, “Farm Dogs, recently received a Judge’s Choice honor in the Still 2014 Contest for Creative Nonfiction. A narrative with early drafts about literal farm dogs, this essay became something more human and more reflective of my own life’s unanswered questions. I remember sharing a draft in my MFA workshop, and someone saying, “This is great and all, but I still don’t understand why you went to this farm. Why did your family go there? What is this all really about?”

I was amazed to realize I had no answer. Back to the drawing board.

After interviewing my parents who are in their late seventies and mid-eighties, I discovered a huge hole in this story, one I’d never truly known about or understood. The interviews filled that hole, in part. Perhaps there are always spaces left open in our life stories.

And perhaps that is as it should be.

Thank you to my professors Eric Waggoner, Richard Schmitt, Carter Sickels, and Jessie van Eerden for your constructive feedback on Farm Dogs. Thank you to my MFA workshop colleagues Lara Lillibridge, Christine Roth, and Benjamin Bolger for reading and critiquing early wonky drafts of the essay. Thanks to Jeremy Jones for teaching a wonderful seminar on how to interview relatives about family history. Thanks to Karen McElmurrary for falling in love with “Farm Dogs” at first sight, even when it was just a wonky draft and full of holes. And thank you, mom and dad, for being brave enough to fill in the empty spaces in this narrative about a part of our lives. I love you.

The Legend of Paint Creek: A River Town Halloween Treat

Lillian let Hayden walk ahead of her. She liked to fall back sometimes, pretending she was looking at the autumn leaves or tracking the rustling of a squirrel behind a fallen tree. In truth, she wanted to look at him, watch the way he walked in the woods. It was different from the way he moved in River Town. In town he was tall, his shoulders squared, his hands hovering at his hips with open fingers. She knew about the knife he carried. Sometimes it made her feel safer, other times less so.

But in the woods, Hayden had a different energy and gait. His shoulders loosened. His hands seemed less poised to act. His long body was more at ease than Lillian ever saw it in town. She liked to see him in this different state of mind and body. It felt like a privilege, and she wondered if anyone else ever saw him like this.

In an instant, her calm shattered. There was a scream, a sound she had never heard before, like the devil himself had opened a gate in hell. The scream made the air vibrate, and Lillian felt the inside of her ears throb with pain.

“Hayden! What is that?!” She was running to catch up to him but there was no need. He’d already spun back to her and was at her side before the echoes stilled and the woods were void of sound. It was a chilling silence. No little creatures skittering, no leaves moving, no birds speaking. The quiet was thick and unsettling.

Hayden’s hand was on her arm now. “Lill, stay at my side. It’s going to be all right, but don’t leave me.” Lillian had no intention of leaving him. The scream had almost stopped her heart. Whatever else was with them in the woods wasn’t going to get her alone, she knew that much.

“Hayden, oh . . . Hayden, what was that?” her voice was a whisper.

“I know what it should be, but . . . .”

“But WHAT?” Lillian was moving from fear to annoyance. Her sharp mind didn’t tolerate not getting information quickly. She could tell Hayden knew something about the scream. Why was he waiting so long to tell her?

“It’s a paint. But she shouldn’t be out now. It’s the middle of the day.”

Lillian furrowed her brow so hard Hayden laughed in her face. “Your face looks like a plowed field.”

“What on earth is a ‘paint’?” asked Lillian, ignoring his mockery.

“Oh, right. You’re so society. You wouldn’t know that word. Paint, you know, like a panther. A mountain lion. There are plenty in these parts. If I’d known you didn’t know that I’d never have let you walk around in the woods with me.”

“Oh, hush,” said Lillian. I know about mountain lions. My father killed one once.”

Hayden stood back and looked at Lillian with what appeared to be new respect. “Not too shabby. I didn’t think the old man had it in him. I don’t know many bankers who can kill a paint.”

The sounds of the woods had returned to normal. Whatever it was had passed.

“Should we get home?” Lillian asked nervously.

“Not a bad idea,” said Hayden. “Still, that was really strange. Paints hunt and mate at night. It’s only after lunch.” Lillian’s face went hot. She felt embarrassed by talk of wild animals screaming and mating, but Hayden didn’t seem to notice. They walked on without speaking. Finally, Hayden said, “You know Paint Creek, right? It’s not that far from River Town.”

“I’ve heard of it,” said Lillian. “I never thought of where it got its name. From lions?”

“Well, yes and no,” said Hayden. “There’s a legend about it. It’s not something you probably should hear . . .” His voice trailed off and she saw him try to hide a smirk. They both knew the best way to get to her was to suggest she wasn’t smart enough or strong enough for a story.

“I most certainly should hear it!” she insisted, taking the bait. She had to know.

Hayden stopped smiling and looked at Lillian. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tell you. But if you can’t sleep later, don’t blame me.

Paint Creek in Ash Branch Park, Kanawha County WV

They say it was a long time ago, maybe fifty years or more. There weren’t that many white people living around here. Houses were really far apart. There was a man, he was called Anselm. Lived up on Paint Creek alone. Or so most people thought.”

Hayden paused. Lillian’s eyes were fixed on him. “What do you mean, so people thought? Did he or didn’t he live alone?”

“He said he did. But the story is that he would show up in town every few weeks, trying to get things that seemed odd. Like he wanted to barter for bolts of calico cloth and lavender water. That’s not what stinky old men are known to like, you know?”

“No, that’s what a woman would want.” Lillian couldn’t take her eyes off Hayden. “What else?”

“One time he came into town near frantic, or so they say, crazy to find a doctor. Except he wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t ill. He wouldn’t say why he needed a doctor so bad. He never found the doc and went home wild eyed. Rumors started that old Anselm had a woman up there. Maybe more than one.” Hayden looked at Lillian. “Do you want to hear the rest?”

She said simply, “Yes. Yes I do.”

“Some of the women in town started bothering their husbands to go up to Anselm’s property to see what was going on. The men didn’t want to go, they figured they didn’t want anyone bothering them, why would Anselm want anybody bothering him. Live and let live. Then the screaming started.”

Lillian couldn’t breathe. She just nodded to Hayden to go on.

“In the middle of the day for three days in a row, people in town could hear paints screaming over by the creek. It was an awful sound, just like today. And no one had ever heard it before when the sun was up. The town women insisted something was not right up at Anselm’s. The men finally formed a group and went to see what was what.

When they got up to the house and banged on the door, no one answered. They decided to break down the door.”

Lillian, normally so composed, could not control herself. “What? What? What did they find?”

“They claimed to find several pieces of a woman’s clothing and a wooden cradle. But there was no one in the house. A door out the back of the house was ripped clean off, what looked like claw marks all over it. There was blood on the ground but not in the house, like something or someone had been dragged away. The men followed the trail until it disappeared into the creek.

No one ever knew what happened. Some people said the three days of screams must have been the three people in the house being attacked by paints, one after the other. Others claimed they saw human footprints near the drag marks, like it had to be a person who took the bodies. Others started a rumor that Anselm was a paint, changed at night and didn’t take too kindly to his woman locking him out, and ripped the door off with his claws.”

“That’s enough,” said Lillian, shuddering. “I don’t want to hear any more. That is horrible. The baby . . . ” She couldn’t continue  and looked away.

“It’s not good, that’s for sure,” said Hayden. “Though some tell the story that the dragged off body was Anselm’s and the woman was the paint, come to claim her baby and she finished the old man off and left his body to sink into the creek. The daytime screams are her victory cries. When you hear her during the day, she is reminding every man around who really owns these woods.”

Lillian smiled. “I like that version better. Let’s go with that.”

“I’ve always liked it best myself, too. I know better than to try to mess with a strong woman.”

The two friends walked on, their hands not touching but close together.

###

This tale is entirely fictional and inspired by the characters Lillian Conley and Hayden Lowe from the collection of short stories that make up River Town. Want to know more about Lillian, Hayden, and the many other characters who live in River Town? Cool! Check out this link as well as the links below: http://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

You can hear some cougar screams and calls here. Many people believe that some of the more blood-curdling cries sound like a woman screaming.

Read about the real Paint Creek, West Virginia, here.

Buy and read River Town here. You can join Facebook fans of the book, too: River Town on Facebook

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Fiction in a Flash: Big Dogs Drag Things

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a big fan of the 100-word flash fiction model. It creates a structure that imposes discipline, as does the sonnet. There are rules. My process is to keep a tight leash on my sentences but not self-edit much in the draft phase. The fun comes when I do a word count and have to start paring down, replacing, refining.

There is an effort to collect 100-word stories on this site, 100 Word Story.

I got started with Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts. This Halloween story, “Big Dogs Drag Things,” is for my friend Eric Douglas. I like what Eric says, “(T)his particular brand of flash fiction is telling a complete story in 100 words. Not more. Not less. It can be a lot of fun. And it can also be challenging. Sometimes what is most important is what is left unsaid.”

I hope you enjoy my story, based on the real life reporting of my friend Rick Wilson about his Great Pyrenees dog, Arpad. Arpad is a legend in my house. I’m living life now with my first-ever large breed dog. So far, no body parts have come home. But I know they could.

I’ll leave the rest unsaid.

Photo courtesy of Rick Wilson

Photo courtesy of Rick Wilson

Big Dogs Drag Things Home

Big dogs drag things home. An enormous thunking and I pull back the curtain. It’s a bloody leg. Hair, bone, skin. A hoof. Must have been a deer. I don’t know where she found it or why she thinks I want it. The scent? A late-night walk in the woods. I could see everything in the natural light.

The drain is clogged again. The tub is stained. I get out, brush my teeth, look at them. Look at my face. She licks my ankle, gazing up, patient. I unlock the large breed iron crate I tell everyone is for her.

West Virginia in Sunlight and Shadow: Writing an American Vignette

vignette (vɪˈnjɛt) – n.
1. a small illustration placed at the beginning or end of a book or chapter
2. a short graceful literary essay or sketch

I’m in good company having been rejected by Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction (see “Wooing Brevity”); nonetheless, I dream of joining that other, smaller party — the one with writers who have wooed and won some DInty W. Moore love. Brevity is where a lot of CNF types like me hang out and admire fine writing. The journal publishes writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.

My 750 words were bounced back about two years ago, and I can say with confidence that my work has improved since then. I have a long way to go, but when I look back at what I sent to Brevity, I see one of my most egregious writing flaws glaring back at me, the tendency to stay in my own head and talk to myself on paper. I struggle with setting, with scene, with grounding events and people in a tangible world. I am learning how to create a place that a reader can enter and experience.

In Andrea Badgley’s call for submissions on the Brevity blog, I saw an opportunity.

Andrea Reads America: A Literary Tour of the USA is Badgley’s  effort to read literature by authors in all 50 states. She writes, “I want to see the state from different points of view. Whenever possible, I would like to read authors who are native to or are longtime residents of the state they set their fiction in, for whom the land is a part of their psyche.” American Vignette is the creative nonfiction component of her journey.

My vignette is about some of my experience growing up as a West Virginian. My family spans generations of Appalachian people. I have a loyalty to the state and an affection for it despite its many flaws that is difficult to explain. I’ve blogged about my feelings and their complexities on Esse Diem before, but with American Vignette I captured some of my favorite elements from a longer work. I also tried to make the narrative more reader-inclusive — to “teach the reader something” as one of my professors said — and not be satisfied with an internal monologue that just happens to be written. The original essay had ragged emotional edges. I was in a lot of pain when I first started writing about West Virginia, and it shows in my the early drafts. Revising those drafts and consolidating them into a sharper piece helped give me closure in some ways. My experience is still there and unchanged, but it has been tempered with time. I am becoming able to reflect and engage outside of my own distress.

For me, my essay is about losing my grip on an important place. It’s about hard questions and unknowable answers. I anticipate some people might be unhappy with this vignette and think that it is unfair or unkind to West Virginia. This is about my observations, experiences, and decisions. It is in no way intended to be the final word on anything, or even the only word. I hope my essay will generate online discussion. West Virginia is complex and contradictory. At times it is an unbearable series of shouts off a mountainside, the caller waiting for a response that seems never to come.

But we linger a little longer.

(You can read my American Vignette on Andrea’s blog project here.)

Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love.​ We ​are tied to the land, to the creeks​, to the​ sky and hills. ​We are bound by ​a birthright and burdened by a collective pain.

Intersection: Elliot Rodger, My Past, & Every Woman’s Every Day

I remember sitting on a split-rail fence with my friend Lesley when we were 6 years old. It was a West Virginia early summer. The air was soft and warm. Shrubs bloomed behind us in the neighbor’s yard, while the hot blacktop where three roads met spread out before us.

Lesley had curly red hair and blue eyes. My hair was long, blonde and straight. When I remember the events of that day, I always see the two of us perched, trying to balance on the fence, not quite stable because we were so young and small. But we wanted to sit up high. We wanted to watch our world come and go from sideline safety. Cars came to the three way stop. Sometimes the right of way was obvious. Sometimes they would wave each other through the intersection if there was confusion about what should happen. Bicycles, joggers, but mostly cars.

Most of my childhood memories are internal. I don’t zoom to some observation of myself as if I’m an object. But this memory has always been from the middle of the intersection. I see two little girls sitting on a fence. I see expressions that go from happy, to confused, to frightened, to conspiratorial.

A jeep started to drive though the intersection and stopped dead in the middle. Two young men stared at me and Lesley. The driver started to wave furiously. Lesley and I stared back, tilting our heads like owlings. Who were these men? We didn’t recognize them, but they seemed to think they knew us. We didn’t wave back. We wanted them to leave the intersection and keep going, but they didn’t do that. One of them started calling out to us. “Hi! Hi, there! Hi-i-i-i-i-i, girls!” The driver was the one waving like crazy. The other man was laughing now, an ugly laugh, not the kind that makes you feel good or happy or safe. The more aggressive and insistent the driver became that we acknowledge him, the more committed I became to silence.

Who did he think he was? I didn’t know him. This was our space, mine and Lesley’s. We lived here with our families. With people we knew. I didn’t want to engage him. Even as a child I had an instinct that waving back would be the beginning of legitimizing this man. Something about these people was not right. They were adults. We were children. We were minding our own business. They were dangling out in a space where other people had the right to come and go safely. Did they think they owned the entire neighborhood? Did they think Lesley and I owed them anything just because they wanted something from us?

They wouldn’t go away.

After what seemed like an eternity, the driver slammed his hands on the steering wheel, and screamed, “Say HELLO, goddamned it!” His friend laughed more. The jeep lurched forward with a squeal and a roar, and then they were gone. We never said hello, and I’ve never regretted that.  Lesley and I were free to speak now. We looked at each other, relieved, and giggled and shrugged and tried to go back to our view of the world before the men stopped, stared, insisted, got angry, and did something threatening. Except we couldn’t go back to that view. I saw something that day when I was six years old that I would never forget and never really get over. There are men I don’t know, who I have no interest in knowing, who have a sense of entitlement about gaining my attention. They will insist and push and cajole, and then when they don’t get what they believe they are entitled to, they will get angry. They will shift into a mode of violence to regain some sense of power over me if I don’t respond to them as they wish. They are entitled. They are dangerous. And they will force women and girls to learn that they are not be ignored.

And when I say “my” attention, “me” and “I,” I speak for every human female on the planet, whether you are 6 or 86, black or white, Muslim or Christian or atheist.

Lesley and I were, in the end, conspiratorial, and by that I mean that we were drafted into one of society’s longest-standing back rooms of agreed-upon silence. I never told my parents about the men, and she and I never spoke of it again. There was an inexplicable shame in attracting their attention in the first place. I remember we were wearing shorts and flip flops. We were just sitting on the fence, clearly open to engaging our world. Had we brought this on ourselves? Maybe they were just nice people. But I knew that wasn’t true. I knew they were not nice people, and yet they had noticed me and tried to interact with me, and if bad people were trying to talk to me, what did that say about what kind of person I might be? Best to just never mention it.

When I think about this man from Santa Barbara, the way he talked about women, the way he rationalized his violent impulses, the way he terrorized people because life and the people in it weren’t giving him exactly what he wanted and believed he was entitled to have, it makes me sick. I am sick that that I find nothing “chilling” about his writings or his videos. I find them familiar and common. Because we don’t talk about it, little girls will continue to be subject to grown men’s harassment and blame themselves. Grown women will endure leers and catcalls and slink home to change into baggy pants and a stiff drink. And the band will probably play on. I’ve been marching to this drum for forty years.