You should know by now that hollers (hollows) are the little valleys where creeks run here in Appalachia. We crossed some sort of boundary from my parents to me, because I never said “holler”, except as a part of this name. But the people who live on this road still do. And everybody “in the holler” either lives up the creek or down the creek, up the holler or down the holler. And yet only twenty miles away from this spot, in the town of 3,000 where I grew up as the city cousin, “holler” was a hillbilly word, mocked by teenagers and other stupid people.
Now that we’ve driven to the top of the ridge, the holler sits down there below the road. Look down through the car window at the tops of trees. And a half-mile off the road, back under those far trees, is the Rockhouse, a smooth cave, scooped back into the hillside rock. I do want you to see the cave, but the walk there and the walk back are just as important, beside and beyond the cemetery where my mom and dad are buried. It’s all coming into view out your side of the road.
The gravestones dot that little hill, popping up out of those tree-tops. We have to drive slow here, because if we meet another car on the one-lane, somebody has to pull off the gravel into the ditch to let pass.
I don’t really know the people who live on this road now, though the last names on the mailboxes are familiar. Their houses are still spaced far enough apart that each one is around a bend from his neighbor, and usually separated by cow-pastures. We’ll turn in – nobody can quite see you from their nosy window – and slip down this even smaller road, just a grass path with tire tracks, that ends at the graves.
The neighbors really do care who drives along the road. They peer out their windows at the sound of gravel under tires. You’d care too, if you lived somewhere where all cars had better have a reason to be there.
Though the cemetery road is just car-ruts through the field, the drive gear will move us fast enough with no gas pedal. I always imagine the car has remembered where we’re going, like it is an insensate machine in the city but out here it gradually awakens – or maybe it’s just that at this spot there is literally no-where else we can possibly drive. At any rate, I can let go of the wheel and take my foot off the gas.
Dip down for a hundred yards then back up, through golden rod and high alfalfa. Then out into the mowed grass. We can park anywhere. The grass is mowed a couple times in the warm months, out far enough around the hill’s foot to make enough parking space for all the out-of-town cousins at once. Cousins of anyone buried here.
My mom and dad and my sister are sleeping on this hill, but let’s skip that for now, I want you to see the woods. We’ll circle around the bottom of the hill and down into the trees toward the creek. Further down and further back.
Down here, the green ceiling of maples blocks even the mean August sun, but occasional lights dapple our feet and freckle the may-apple leaves (which always made me think of fairy parachutes). Leaves underfoot are spongy, decades deep. Moss climbs the grey rocks and the grey beech trunks. Each time I return the green of the moss is always a surprise. There are colors in the woods that exist only on the retina but the memory can’t store the picture. Jack-in-the-pulpit nods and nods in the slight wind.
The holler is actually the ancient flood-bed of the creek, 50 yards across. But the creekwater normally is just as wide as my dad’s stride, and it runs an inch thin on slimy rock. Broken cliffs, veined with roots as thick as an old man’s thigh, rise on both sides of the little holler. From the road we drove in on, you can never see that there’s a rock canyon back in here, and as we look back where we came from here, on foot, we can’t see the road or any houses.
We used to follow the path beside the stream on summer nights. And sometimes step the flat stones. Down from the graveyard, into the woods, back into the holler, back again beneath the rock face where the creek had long since cut under the upper forest at a bend. This sensation of down and back and more down and back, deeper into the womb of the countryside, is what I’d feel when I was small and my mother would take us back to her home on weekends.
One cut in the rock in particular is deep enough to call a Rockhouse. It will shelter a couple dozen cattle in a storm. The rock overhead is higher than a small maple and is rippled like water, and blackened by the smoke of a thousand fires like the ones we were sure the Indians built, and the ones we built, for roasting marshmallows. I’d lean back on the log where I’d sit, away from the fire on my face, and strain my neck to watch the sparks shoot up into the black night. They’d streak red and yellow as they tracked the rock face out and up to where the crickets sing in the root balls of trees above our faces.
It may have been there one night I first felt that, by not knowing, I was a carrier of injustice. I felt something that, only years later, I’d be able to label. Embarrassed at being in a place without knowing those who had been there before. I’ll say I was 10. We were always told the Indians had lived there a century before, but it wasn’t the romance of war whoops and war paint that drew me to picture them in the back of the cave beyond the light. I’d think of a 10 year old Indian boy, and of his mother, and of the day he died, and of how his mother felt, and how could I pull her sorrow out of the sandstone where it had soaked in and…do what with it?
Sentimental. All my life I’ve been secretly worried about all the deaths hidden under the bushes and in the weeds at the side of the roads. Even in the deep hollers far off the road, in the woods beyond the graveyards. Sentimental is as good a word as any, I won’t argue with you, but I don’t use it for this feeling in my interior monologue with my feelings. It doesn’t seem quite accurate.
I would look across the fire and see my mother, young and pretty, laughing with her brothers. We were the city cousins, come back here to the country many weekends in the summer and this cave was as deep in this country as she could burrow. 30 years before that night, before she ever thought of me, she would have been right there as a young girl, sitting at a fire.
So there, there is one connection: she watched the sparks go to heaven when she was 10, and she led me there when I was 10 and I leaned my face back into the dark at the same spot, at the same age. Before her? After me?
Have you walked in the woods at night with no flashlight? I mean the deep woods, not a thicket beside the road where you can still hear the rumble and swoosh of traffic or trains. The woods, where you can stand without motion, close your eyes in order to point every neuron toward your ears, but still get no sound that is not a forest sound.
You have to be this deep in the woods to be free of the compass. Our ears are powerful: the slightest sound of civilization always comes from one direction more than others and so it orders the circle around you into one safe direction and then the others. But in the quiet of Appalachian woods there is no order.
Near to midnight we would put out the fire (usually by peeing on it; this was more practicality than mischief) and walk out of the holler without lights. Out of the rockhouse onto the old footpath, which could only be felt but not seen. Overhead, no stars or moon, only thick summer canopy. No sound, no light. Even the breeze couldn’t find its way into the holler. Along the path and across the trickling stream which made silvery sounds dropping off the little sandstone steps. A chipmunk skitters, unseen. Frogs burp, unseen.
Now, on the right, the rise of the cemetary knoll, though it was still too dark to see the jagged teeth of the headstones against the sky, like you saw in the daylight when you walked in.
The old ones were perfectly comfortable walking in the woods at night past the cemetary which they all believed exhaled will’o’wisp and apparitions. No light, no sound, and the haunted graves. As comfortable as sitting at the kitchen table playing cards.
I’ve written about their ghost-ology. Yes, they told stories of late night appearances of dead ladies in flowing white dress, standing beside the road needing a ride, let’s say, or walking down a stairwell formal-like (ghosts never hurry). They told stories of the sounds of weeping babies among the graves, or flaming crosses a head high above the far field which does not illuminate, by its blue light, anything around. Like all cultures do, they told these stories: around the card table, or while walking at night.
But an anthropologist who grew up in the city could easily project his disdain for other elements of the culture and falsify the entire matter for a Ph.D. Supernatural activity in this culture is not explaining the unknown, is not scaffolding a religious worldview — the ghosts who drift across these fields in fact do not fit into the religious worldview, but contradict it.
It is affection. People do not see the landscape inhabited by the spirits of their elders unless they love it, love the old ones, love the places, love the night as much as the day, love the earth which gives potatoes and takes back mother and father.
It is not fear or need for order which writes those stories, but affection, and that’s why the old ones were never even slightly chilled those midnights as we found our way back to the cars, where they’d turn a moment, hand on the car door, and glance back at the graves for movement, not wishing to be elsewhere.