Highland Annals. Iii: Serena and Wild Strawberries

I

SHE was not an unalloyed joy that first year of our friendship. Her imperturbability did not always seem as a restful evergreen wall, in whose shadow I could sit until perplexities lost their heat. At times it was a ‘no thoroughfare ’ with the meadows of desire gleaming beyond.

I called one day and found her churning by the spring a pleasing picture, too, under the trees. Her rounded, youngish figure gave no hint of her seven-fold maternity, and however ragged the rest of her family might be, she always magically managed to be neat. She was singing leisurely and churning in rhythm — a most undomestic performance; but my eye was not Mrs. Poyser’s, and if it had been, it could not have embarrassed Serena.

‘I’m takin’ my time,’ she said, ‘fer this is my last churnin’ fer a good spell, I reckon.’

‘Your last? Why, is the cow sick? — dead ? And you have just bought her ? ’ I asked, my concern sharpened perhaps by the thought of a very inconvenient loan that had gone abysmally into her purchase.

‘She got so many sweet apples last night she’s foundered herself, — clear light ruined, granpap says.’

‘Surely you did n’t turn her into the orchard?’

‘ Why, a few apples would n’t hurt her. But there was a whole passel on the ground that I could n’t see fer the weeds an’ briers. An’ she got ’em.’

‘But I lent Ben my scythe to cut those briers.’

‘His poppie needed him in the field, an’ he could n’t git the time right off. When he did, we could n’t find that scythe nowheres. I hate it about the cow,’ she assured me cheerfully; ‘but it had to happen, I reckon.’

I looked about me. At that moment I could see nothing artistic in Bert’s half of a shirt looped about one shoulder; there was only pathos in little Lissie’s naked, buttonless back; and I could not placidly think of Len, as I had passed him a fewmoments before, showing ankles as sockless as ever was Simpson. But perhaps it was the thought of that loan, with its indefinite time extension, that made me wish to set a shade of anxiety on Serena’s unclouded brow. At any rate, I began to sermonize on the merits of discontent and the virtue of ambition.

Her face brimmed with astonishment that finally broke into speech: ’But I’ve four beds, and bread on my table! What more do I want?’

What more could I say? So man, in some grateful season, may look up to the seated gods: ‘I’ve four religions and a bumper crop; what more do I want?’ And what can the seated gods do but smile patiently?

I retreated, seeking my usual solace after all defeats — the unreproachful woods. Near a small clearing, in the quiet shield of some bushes, I overheard the latter end of an argument. One voice was Len’s, the other a neighbor’s.

‘A tater’s a tater, anyhow,’ the neighbor was affirming.

‘You might as well say a woman’s a woman,’ came the retort from Len.

‘Well, ain’t she?’ said neighbor.

‘Lord, no!’ said Len, with contempt freely flowing.

‘Oh, course there ain’t nobody like Reenie. Pity the Lord did n’t think o’ makin’ her fer Adam. We’d all be in Eden yit, loaferin’ by the river of life, ’stead o’ diggin’ taters out o’ rocks.’

‘When you’re spilin’ to talk about a woman, Dan Goforth, you need n’t travel furder’n your own doorstep,’ answered Len, his voice, like drawling fire, creeping on without pause. ‘Reenie may n’t be stout enough to wear out a hoe-handle, but she’s never jowerin’ when I come in, ’n’ there’s always a clean place in the house big enough fer me to set my cheer down in, I ain’t layin’ up much more’n debts, but they’s easy carried when nobody’s naggin’ yer strenth out, a woman’s smile ain’t no oak tree in harvest-time, but it’s jest as good to set by, my coat’s raggeder’n yourn, but I’d ruther Reenie ’ud lose her needle onct on a while than her temper all the time, neighbors can go by my house day or night an’ never hear no fire a-spittin’, which kain’t be said o’ yourn, an’ you scootle from here, Dan Goforth; don’t you tech nary nuther tater in this patch!’

The neighbor scootled, backwards it seemed, to the road. I took the trouble myself to go down to a trail and come up casually from another direction, in full view of Len. He was working mightily, digging up a hill with two strokes of his hoe.

‘Dan gone?’ I asked indifferently.

‘Aye, he lit out. Old Nance wanted him, I reckon. He dassen t stay a minute after she fixes the clock fer him.

‘That’s a kind of trouble you and Reenie don’t have.’

‘You’ve said it now. Reenie don’t keep no time on me. If I want to drap over the mountain to see if I can git old man Diller’s mule fer extry ploughin’, ’cause the crabgrass is elbowin’ along the ground ’most rootin’ up my corn, an’ tells Reenie I’ll be back by twelve, an’ I find the old man spilin’ a ox-yoke, an’ I shapes it up fer him an’ stays to dinner, an’ comes back by the meetin’house where they’s puttin’ in the new windows an’ not gittin’ ’em plumb, an’ I stays till sundown settin’ ’em in so they won’t make everybody ’at passes think he’s gone cross-eyed, an’ I remembers we’ve got no coffee, so I slips round by the store an’ stays till dark talkin’ with Tim Frizbie about the best way to grow fat corn an’ lean cobs, ’cause I know you want me to git all the new idies I can, an’ when I strikes Granny Groom’s place she’s at the gate wantin’ me to talk to her Lizy’s girl who’s fixin’ to leave an’ strollop over the country, an’ I says to that girl when you ’re at home you’re eatin’ welcome bread, an when you ’re out in the world you don’t know what you’re eatin’, an’ a lot more that was a-plenty, an’s I pass Mis’ Woodlow’s, who’s got a powerful bad risin’, I thinks I’ll stop an’ see if her jaw’s broke yit, an’ I finds ol’ Jim so out o’ heart about her, I stays to help him put over a couple o’ hours, an’ when I walks in home about midnight, Reenie she’s gone to bed sensible, an’ says there’s bread an’ beans in the cupboard. Now that’s what I call some comfort to a man, to know he can take what happens ’long the road, an’ know his wife ain t frettin’ till her stomach’s gone an’ she’s as lean as a splinter like ol’ Nance Goforth.’

‘You nearly got what you wanted when you married, did n’t you, Len?’ ‘Well, I reckon, but I did n’t know it from the start-off. Reenie was powerful to be a-goin’, an’ I couldn’t git used to draggin’ off every Saturday night to stay till Monday mornin’. An’ it was sort o’ disheartenin’ to find she wa’n’t much good in a crop. Most fellers them days tried to git a good field-hand when they hitched up. But I felt different about Reenie after I’d nearly killed her an’ the baby.’

‘Gracious, was it that bad?’

‘I did n’t do it a purpose. It was back in Madison, where I married Reenie, an’ jest two days ’fore Christmas. She’d put in to go to her pap’s, an’ I thought I’d git up a nice lot o’ wood, make me a big fire, an’ have my Christmas at home. I’d told her I thought she’d feel different about stayin’ in her own house after she’d got a little ’un in it, but she ’lowed her sight an’ hearin’ was as good as ’fore she had a baby, an’ she could enjoy usin’ ’em just the same. So I got out by good daylight an’ went up the hill above the house to cut a big, dead chestnut that I was tired o’ lookin’ at; then I means to slip over to By Kenny’s an’ git him an’ his wife to come over fer Christmas ’fore Reenie got away. There’d come a skift o’ snow a few days back, bare enough to make the ground gray, then a little warm rain, an’ on top o’ that a freeze that stung yer eyeballs, an’ you never saw anything as slick as that hill was ’fore the sun riz that mornin’. When my chestnut fell she crackled off every limb agin the hard ground clean as a sled-runner. Boys, if she did n’t shoot off, makin’ smoke out o’ that frost! I saw she was pinted fer our little shack an’ I tries to yell to Reenie to git out, but I never made more’n a peep like a chicken. When the log struck, it shaved by the corner o’ the house an’ took the chimbly. Boys, it made bugbites o’ that chimbly! I knowed Reenie was settin’ by the fire with the baby, an’ I’d killed ’em both. I felt ’most, froze to the ground, an’ I thought if Reenie was only livin’ I’d let her do her own ’druthers the rest of her days. An’ when I got down to the house an’ sees her an’ the baby not hurt, with the rocks all piled around ’em, I says to myself I ain’t ever goin’ back on what I promised her unbeknownst. An’ I ain’t.’

‘Wliat was she doing?’

‘She was jest settin’ there.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She ’lowed we’d got to go to pap’s fer Christmas. An’ we did.’

II

I stood on the doorstep one morning, balancing destiny. Should I take the downward road to the post-office, and thereby connect with the distant maelstrom called progress, or should I choose the upward trail to the still crests of content?

Serena, happening designedly by, saved me the wrench of decision.

‘If you want any strawberries this year,’ she said, ‘you’d better go before the Grassy Creek folks have rumpaged over Old Cloud field. They slip up from the west side an’ don’t leave a berry for manners. I’m goin’ now. I always go once.’

I provided buckets and cups, as expected, and we started. The high ridge field where the berries rambled had its name from an Indian, Old Cloud, who, it was said, had lived there behind the cloud that always rested on the ridge before so many of the peaks had been stripped of their pine and poplar and balsam that had held the clouds entangled and the sky so close. After it had passed to the settlers it had taken forty years of ignorant and monotonous tillage to reduce the rich soil to a halfwild pasture enjoying the freedom of exhaustion.

I had been under roof for three days, and the spring wine produced the usual inebriation. Several times I left Serena far behind, but she always caught up, and we reached the top of the ridge together. Here, panting, I dropped to a bed of cinquefoil, while Serena stood unheated and smiling.

‘Did you ever run, Serena?' I asked.

‘I always take the gait I can keep,’she said, her glance already roving the ground for berries. ‘The other side o’ that gully’s red with ’em. We’ve got ahead o’ Grassy Creek this time.’

I was looking at the world which the lifted horizon had given me. North by east the Great Smokies drew their lilacblue veil over impenetrable wildernesses of laurel. I could see the round dome of Clingman, and turned quickly from the onslaught of a remembered day when my body was wrapped in the odor of its fir trees and its heathery mosses cooled my feet. South lay the Nantahalas, source of clear waters. West — but what were names before that array of peaks like characters in creation’s alphabet, whose key was kept in another star? They rose in every form, curved, swaying, rounded, a loaf, a spear, shadowed and unshadowed, their splotches of green, gold, and hemlock-black flowing into blue, where distance baulked the eyes and imagination stepped the crests alone. It seemed easier to follow than to stay behind with feet clinging to earth. Affinity lay with the sky.

Serena was steadily picking berries.

‘But Serena,’ I called, ‘just see!’

‘I come here once a year,’ she said, standing up, ‘an’ I never take my look till I ’ve filled my bucket.’ And she was on her knees again.

Rebuke number two, I thought, and set to work. Avoiding Serena’s discovered province, I crossed to the next dip of the slope, and there the field was covered with morning-glories, still radiantly open. All hues were there, from the purple of night to snow without tint, and the clusters of berries under them seemed in sanctuary. I plucked them away, feeling like a ravager of shrines. A breeze flowed over the field, and every color quivered dazzlingly. It was plainly a protest. I gave up my robberies and passed to another part of the field, where rapine seemed legitimate. Here the rank grass of yesteryears was deeply rooted and matted, and I sank adventurously in the tripping tangles. The slope was steeper, too, and I slipped, slid, and stumbled from, patch to patch before theft was well begun, losing half my captures in the struggle. It was tinglingly arduous, however, and I continued a happy game of profit and loss until I scrambled from a gully into whose depths I had followed my rolling bucket, and confronted Serena. She looked as if she had coolly swum the lake of color behind us; but her fresh apron was unstained, while mine was a splash of coral. I advised her to return. The picking was better above.

‘I know it is,’ she answered, ‘but them mornin’-glories keep me fluttery, lookin’ at me all the time. I got to fill my bucket first. I promised Len all he could eat in a pie, an’ it takes a big one fer ten of us. Granpap’s stayin’ at our house now. But we’d better move furder over, out o’ this soddy grass. They’s rattlers here.’

With her word we saw him. He was coiled two feet from Serena’s undulating gingham. The black diamonds shining on his amber skin assured me of his variety — the kind that, as natives tell me, Indians will not kill because ‘he gives a man a chance. Certainly he was giving us a chance. His eyes seemed half-shut, but not sleepy, as if he did not need his full power of vision to comprehend our insignificant world. His poised head was motionless. Only his tail quivered, not yet erected for his gentlemanly warning. He glistened with newness, and was evidently a youngish snake, with dreams of knighthood still unbattered. His parents had bequeathed him none of the hatred that belongs to a defeated race. Serena seemed as motionless as he. I took her hand, drawing her a few paces back, and we stood watching. Sir Rattle slowly uncoiled, quivered throughout his variegated length, and moved slowly from us, disappearing in the clumps of grass.

‘Well,’said a pale Serena, ‘my boys ain’t ever goin’ to kill a snake agin if I know it. I feel like I did after I was baptized. The preacher, he was old man Diller, put his hand on my shoulder an’ said, “Love the Lord, my sister”; but I was so full o’ lovin’ everything and everybody I could n’t think about the Lord. Do you reckon snakes have brothers and sisters that they know about? Ain’t it a wonder they don’t hate us?’ She could not stop talking any more than I could begin.

‘ Let’s get to the top o’ the field where it’s cooler. It’s got so hot I’m afeard a shower’s cornin’.’

By the time we reached the top we knew that the shower was to be a heavy one. There was a cave over the ridge on the Grassy Creek side, where we could take shelter. But we would wait a little for what the heavens could show us. The doors of the sky were to be thrown open. There would be no reservation of magic. Earth knew it by the quick wind that pressed every grassblade to the ground and made the strawberry-blossoms look like little white, whipped flags; and by the grove of tall, young poplars that bent like maidens, their interlaced branches resting, a silver roof, on their curved shoulders. The lightning rippled, and earth was a golden rose spreading her mountain petals. It was the signal for the assembling of the dragons. They came swelling from the west, pulling one great paw after another from behind the walls of distance and puffing black breath half across the sky. The lightning again, and this time earth was a golden butterfly under the paws of the dragons. Then the conflict began, the beasts mingled, and the sound of their bones massively breaking struck and shook the ground under our feet. A gray sea rose vertically on the horizon and marched upon us. We fled, blinded, to the cave, tearing off our aprons to protect our buckets.

Even here Serena did not pant or gasp.

‘How dry it is!’ she said, examining the berries. ‘They’re not hurt. My, you did n’t cap yourn!’

‘But I’d never fill my bucket if I stopped to cap them.’

‘You don’t stop. You leave the cap on the vine. It’s as quick done as not. Now it’ll take you longer to cap than it did to pick. O’ course you did n’t know. Some folks knows one thing and some another,’ she added kindly. ‘Ain’t it a thick rain? But we got a good place. Some say this cave’s ha’nted, an’ won’t come a-nigh it. Uncle Sim Goforth died here, but he was a good man an’ would n’t harm nobody if he did come back.’

‘How did he happen to die here?’

‘They killed him. It was in time o’ the war way back. Folks are better now. They say they’re doin’ awful over the sea, but they’d never be so mean as they were to Uncle Sim. He hid here, an’ brought his wife an’ children. But they found him.’

‘Was he a Unionist or Confederate?’

‘ I never could make out ’tween ’em. The Unionists, they wanted to free the black people, but the Unionists here in the mountains did n’t favor ’em. So I never could git it clear. Anyway, Uncle Sim was a good man. I’ve heard granpap tell about him many a night. The men, when they found him, cut down a tree an’ hewed out some puncheons fer a coffin, an’ made Uncle Sim sit on it an’ play his fiddle. He could play the best that ever was, an5 they say he jest played up fine that night. They kept him playin’ till near daylight; then they shot him, an’ his wife an’ children lookin’ right on. I used to cry, hearin’ granpap tell it, but it don’t make me feel bad now, ’cause I know folks are so much better. When snakes won’t bite you, men are shorely a-changin’ too. Looky! the rain’s stopped quicker ’n it come. We can go right back, fer the ridge dreens off soon as the water strikes it. Ain’t it cool, an’ the air like gold!’

She tried to catch a handful of it to show me its quality. We went back, and in a minute, as she said, our buckets were full, though we lost a few seconds while I learned of Serena how to cap and pick at the same time. Then we started along the ridge to the gap where we had entered the field. Walking back, I lingered to pluck a giant white trillium that shone from the fringe of wood. No matter; there were thousands more lighting up the cove fart her down. As I came out of the wood, the air over the field seemed visibly to precipitate some of it s gold. A swarm — no, the word is too heavy for anything so delicately bodied — a band of butterflies, moving in a slow wave over the ridge, had at that, moment broken into myriads of distinct flakes — a shattered blaze. Nearer, their gold became tinily specked, and showed flashes and fringes of pearl; the silver-bordered fritllaries, perhaps, or some kin of theirs. I started to call Serena, but paused softly, for she was gazing over the mountains, having her ’look.’ I was left to the butterflies. Were they as unconscious of their grubby origin as they seemed, holding no memory of a life bounded by a sassafras twig, or of the cove behind us where violet leaves may have been their food and heaven?

The butterfly ought to be the symbol on every Christian’s flag. It is the perfect pietist. Its confidence in the Infinite is as patent as its wings. Serena, amid that airy fluttering, seemed, in her own shining way, the sovereign of the band. Deep as piety was her trust in the morrow. Food would come to her, raiment would be found.

The butterflies floated past, becoming a dim, coppery tremble in the shade of the valley. Serena was still gazing in the distance. At last I said that we must be going; Len was expecting his pie.

‘These berries ain’t goin’ into a pie,’ she answered. ‘They’re worth more than a pie’ll come to. They’re goin’ into jam.

Was Serena taking forethought? No; I could trust her lighted face and wet eyes. She was still piously improvident.

III

Once more it was May, and early morning. I was out before breakfast, gathering sticks for my hearth-fire. There had been showers in the night, and an inch of new grass trembled over the ground. I tugged at a pile of brush made by my oldest apple tree, which had fallen in a winter storm. The limbs, and even the million twigs, were all gray and green and slate-blue in their wrappings of moss, and in among them, like a burning heart, sat a cardinal.

‘You ought to be singing from a treetop,’ said I.

‘ But I’m getting my breakfast. This is the cafeteria of Wingland. Are you going to demolish it? ’

‘Indeed, no!’ I answered, picking up some peripheral sticks and leaving his stronghold unshaken.

To thank me, he hopped to the top of the pile, and right in my face, sang his most shamelessly seductive song. Serena put her head out of the kitchen window to listen. He paused, and deserted me for a tree-top. But sweet was air and earth. Delight summoned an antithesis. I thought of forgotten pains, some monitions of the night before. Suppose I were to die, and never again stand in that, dip of the mountain when it was a brimming bowl of springtime? Perhaps there was no other planet where I might gather in my arms such beautiful gray and green and slate-blue fagots. I turned to go in, and met rebuke in the eyes of my Chicago guest.

‘I wonder if you are going to tell me that your woman does not know how to pick up brush.’

My woman! If Serena heard that!

‘And after last night! Did you take your medicine?’

Verily I had. She was unconvinced.

‘The bottle seems full.’

‘Oh, I took it from the cardinal’s throat,’ said I, surrendering.

She laughed, for there was sweetness in her, and we went in to breakfast. I had prepared it before going out, leaving Serena on guard. She was with me, not so much for the help she gave, as to save the feelings of my guest.

‘Do you have much of this soggy weather?’ said Chicago, airily tolerant, as we took our seats.

‘Why, I’ve never noticed.’

‘We shore do,’ said Serena, with gloom that was ludicrously alien to her face. ‘It’s li’ble to rain now fer two weeks steddy.’

‘But I had decided not to go home to-day,’ cried the guest, almost resentfully declining the hot biscuit Serena urged upon her. ‘Two weeks! Do you mean two weeks?’

‘I’ve known it to hang wet fer a month.’

‘Why, Serena!’

‘Showery like. You know it’s so, Mis’ Dolly.’

‘Well, we’re going to have perfect weather now. Tender, bright, with maybe a bit of dew in the air. Stay, and I promise you a miracle among springs.’ I held up a glass of strawberry-jam. ‘The kind of a spring that produced this.’ And I offered her the food of heaven.

‘Thanks, but I’ve cut out sweets.’

I caught my breath, and looked at Serena, in whose eye sparkled a triumph that said plainly, ‘Now you see!’

My guest did not notice that I sat dumb, bewildered, bereft. She was talking.

‘No, I think, my dear, that if you wish to memorialize a passing folk, you will find material more worthy of your pen in the twilight of the bourgeoisie. They have lived in the main line of evolution, and will leave their touch on the race. Faint it may be, but indelible. In art, in literature, perhaps in certain predilections of character and temperament, it will be possible to trace them. These mountain people will not have even a fossilized survival. They live in a cul-de-sac, a pocket of society, so to speak. Your mind has an epic cast, and will never fit into its limits.’

There was more; then Serena’s voice glided into the monologue.

‘Mis’ Dolly, I don’t like to tell you, seein’ you were ailin’ last night, but Johnny Diller went by here this mornin’, an’ he said Mis’ Ludd’s little Marthy was n’t expected to keep breath in her till sundown.’

‘I must go,’said I, getting up.

‘I don’t approve of it,’ said my friend.

‘I must. You don’t understand — ’

‘Please don’t tell me that again, my dear.’

‘But you don’t!’

‘ Your hat ’son the porch,’ said Serena.

‘You can’t leave to-day, Marie, because I have n’t time to tell you goodbye now,’ I said, and hurried away.

Home again at ten in the evening, I found Serena sitting by a bright kitchen fire humming ‘Old Time Religion.'

‘Is Miss Brooks asleep?’ I asked.

‘I reckon she is. She said she was goin’ to take a sleeper.’

‘She’s gone?’

Serena’s affirming nod did not interrupt her tune.

‘Please stop that humming, Serena, and tell me what you did the minute my back was turned.’

‘Nothin’ at all. That was the matter, maybe.’

‘You did n’t do anything for her?’

‘I fixed her a snack to eat on the train.’

‘Oh, thank you! It was a nice one, was n’t it?’

‘I give her some pickled beets, an’ turnip-kraut, an’ ’tater-salad made with that blackberry vinegar.’

I dizzily recalled a remark of Len’s. ‘That blackberry vinegar ’ud pickle a horseshoe.’

‘Serena,’ I began faintly.

She had crossed to a shelf and was looking fondly at a jar of strawberryjam.

My voice died away; I could not reproach her.

Sweets, my friend had called it. And, my God, it was May morning on a mountain-top!