• 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!