How the Mountains Are

An ATLANTIC discovery whose story, “The Surest Thing in Show Business,”won first prize among the Atlantic “Firstspublished last year,JESSE HILL FORDis a graduate of Vanderbilt University, studied under Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida, and is now in the process of establishing himself in Tennessee. He was awarded an Atlantic Grant of $2500 in 1959 to assist him in the completion of his novel.


MARY was forty years old and she was nursing an invalid lady when she heard of a summer position with a family going away to the North Carolina mountains. There would be two small boys for her to take care of, and because the old lady Mary was nursing was cranky and because Mary had no children of her own she told her brother Albert, who had informed her of the job, that she would take it. And right away she began to wonder what the mountains would be like, for she had never seen them.

She asked Albert. He was a driver for Mrs. Parmer St. John, the lady whose children Mary would nurse. All Albert could explain was that the mountains were different. It would make the tenth summer he had gone there with the St. Johns, and that was all he would say. “The mountains, they is a very different place; so high, you know.” Albert was not very imaginative. He told her other things, about how the colored servants lived in at each place and were thus separated like the whites by the distance between the summer homes. A person needed a car to get anyplace up there. There was no bus line. But a night off was rare. “Always parties, dinners, drinks to mix, and you have to work late and serve and then help clean up afterwards. Only now and then you gets a night off and can have maybe some beers and play a little cards with the other colored peoples. But if you nurse children, you won’t even get that night off,” Albert said, meaning the very rare night when the other Negro servants were free to socialize a little. Mary wanted to know why. “Because the St. Johns, they requires the children’s nurse to sleep in the room with the kids, that’s why,” Albert explained. But Mary took the job anyway. She wanted to get away from the cranky old invalid lady. She wanted some children to love, even if it were only for the summer, even if it meant she would have no time off. And more than that, she wanted to see the mountains and to know how they were.

Early in June they left Nashville. Mr. St. John drove the convertible, packed with golf clubs and cases of whisky, his thermos of ice cubes and his basket of Swiss cheese on rye bread sandwiches, and a suitcase or two. Mrs. St. John drove the sedan with her maid on the front seat beside her. And Albert brought up the rear with the station wagon, which carried Mary and the two boys, Went and little Phil, and the St. Johns’ poodle dogs, Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke. The dogs were black and had their hair clipped so they looked like lions with curly manes. They sat up on the front seat of the station wagon beside Albert and rode like people. There were also sandwiches and suitcases and an ice chest with bottles of grape soda getting cold for the children.

Pencil drawing by Charles H. Woodbury. Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library.

I guess I don’t have no more neurotic crazy people to worry about, Mary thought, as they left Nashville behind, speeding toward the east. When little Phil, who was a chubby child of three, got sleepy, she took him happily in her arms and held him against herself. Presently his eyes closed and his head sagged trustingly against her arm. And on their caravan sped, toward the mountains. Went, who was five, counted the cows and horses he saw. Twice they stopped for Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke to get out and be excused. One place was on a winding part of the highway leading into Cookeville. Nearby was a waterfall drifting down into a gorge. Mary thought she had never seen anything so beautiful before. They stopped in Johnson City for everyone to be excused at a brand-spanking-new filling station, and there they all had a sandwich out of the basket and a cold soda pop out of the ice chest. Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke had a chicken sandwich each. Chicken was their favorite, Albert said.

It was late when they pulled out of Johnson City, and the sun was riding low in the sky behind them. And far ahead Mary had her first glimpse of the mountains. They were gigantic, and they were wreathed in mist like the spumy stuff she had seen spinning out of the waterfall back there beside the road outside of Cookeville. She held her breath and looked, feasting her eyes on what she saw.

Albert said these mountains were nothing compared to the Rockies, out West. He had been in the Army and had been all the way out to California and back. Mary didn’t believe him. She didn’t believe anything could be as fine as those mountains she saw lying there ahead of them, like a distant bank of clouds. And suddenly, while she looked, the air got colder, so that they had to close the windows of the station wagon. Mr. St. John turned on his parking lights and the red tail lights moved on, speeding ahead of them into the dusk. They were climbing now, and soon it was dark. They were spiraling up into the mountains, and Mary could see Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke, sitting erect like soldiers in the front seat, when they met an oncoming car with its bright lights flashing around a curve. Went and little Phil were asleep. She held little Phil close and cherished her thoughts and feelings. She had never felt so grand, nor had she ever felt so loved as she did now, riding into the mountains. Albert lit a cigarette. Mr. Marmaduke sneezed. Albert said they were into North Carolina now. Good-by, Tennessee, Mary thought. Her ears popped when they went down the long slow curves and popped again when they began to climb. Albert said his ears always popped that way. It was nothing to worry about. She was proud of Albert, her brother, for being so smart. He had made a good record driving with the St. Johns, and they thought very highly of him.

At the bottom of a great mountain they hit a winding narrow road, and at first the lights in the houses on top of it seemed so high that she thought they must be stars. In the headlights’ glare she could see that the road passed alongside a steep gorge, and giant trcctops thrust themselves up beside the road just like hedges. They kept winding and climbing until they were clean to the top of that mountain and on a long ridge. Where the treetops parted she could see other cars far down on the road that their own station wagon had come over, and those cars far below just starting the climb looked no bigger than bugs. They seemed to be crawling like lightning bugs down there in the night. And she thought, So this is how the mountains are. And a few minutes later they were at Point Rock, with the children sleepy and hungry and crying. Little Phil had a small husky way of crying, and Went whined. The air was so cold they all needed coats. Beelah, the gardener, had turned on the lights and laid the fires, Albert said. Beelah was white and was a native. They called the white folks who lived in the mountains all year around “natives,”Albert explained.

Soon the cars were all unloaded, and she gave the boys each a bowl of cereal in the kitchen. But they Were too tired to eat much, and finally she took them back to the room she was to share with them. It had two little beds for the boys and a big bed for her. She piled on the covers, so they would all be warm, and soon she fell asleep, breathing the cold, delicious air of the mountains deep into her lungs.

WHEN she woke the next morning, Mary had already made her first mistake. Went and little Phil had waked up early and gone outside and had a frolic in the dewy grass with Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke. Mrs. St.John’s maid had told Mrs. St. John about it, and Mrs. St. John came to Mary, who had rounded up the boys by then and had bathed them and was trying to scrub the grass stains out of their pajamas.

Mrs. St. John was very nice. “We mustn’t ever leave the children alone, Mary,” she said. “From now on, let’s make sure they don’t get out before you are awake.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will, Mrs. St.John,” said Mary. “I’m sorry, ma’am.” And she felt bad the entire rest of that day for having made such a foolish mistake. She stayed with the children constantly, trying to keep them happy, determined that she would make up for her error. But when they went to bed that second night, she discovered there wasn’t a lock on the door to their room. She wondered how she would keep the boys from slipping out on her in the morning. But when the boys were asleep, she figured out what she must do. She pushed the head of her own heavy bed against the door to keep it closed. And the next day when she saw Albert for a moment, he told her that the other maids before her had solved the problem that same way, shoving the big bed against the door. That way the children couldn’t slip out in the night and try to go get into bed with their mother. That way they couldn’t get away from the maid in the morning. “You have to watch the little boys close. This is a real dangerous place, built mainly for grown-up adults, not children,” Albert warned her. Mary promised to be careful.

By July the days had taken on a rhythm. In the morning after breakfast she and the boys went for a long walk. At ten thirty, when they came back from walking, Mary had her only break for a rest. She could lie down an hour then while Mrs. St. John took the children to the lake. When they came back she gave them their lunch, bathed them, and stayed in the room while they took their naps. The job was exactly as Albert had said it would be. It was a hard job. But she loved the children and they loved her. She read them little storybooks about trains and merry-go-rounds and roller coasters and fire engines. There was no one to help her and she had to watch the children constantly. And now that she knew what the house was like, she shivered when she thought about that first morning when the children had escaped her. There were long steps leading to the ground from the back hallway. One slip going down those high steep steps and Went or little Phil might have fallen dead with a broken neck. When she thought about it she put her arms around the children and hugged them close to her.

ONE morning near the end of July, Mary pushed the bed aside and took the children down to breakfast. Then they set out on their walk. Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke went along, frisking about in the wet morning grass. They passed Beelah, who had started the lawn mower and was beginning to mow the pretty light-green grass. He always mowed about the edges of the grounds in the morning, down near the hedge, so no one in the house would be disturbed and awakened. The mower had thrown grass all over his shoes and bits of it were sticking to his trousers.

The engine whirred and clacked as the mower moved along with Beelah behind it. He was a tall lean mountain man with hair that grew up straight from his head, and he wore it in an Army G.I. haircut, only it seemed somehow thicker and different, less raw than a soldier’s haircut. He stopped the mower when Mary came down the drive with the boys. Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke, who were very gay and wide-awake, rushed impatiently ahead of them. He walked over to the drive, and when they reached him he squatted down to talk to the boys. “Hello, little chaps,” he said. It was always this way. The boys always spoke to him shyly. He never looked at Mary and she never looked at him. They both looked at the boys or at Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke. The dogs now sat down restlessly. Stopping bored them, for they were anxious to be bounding on with the morning walk. The walk was the first adventure of the day for the poodles.

“Have you been good little chaps?” Beelah said in his soft voice.

Mary remembered that Albert had said the natives were all queer people. Beelah was a native, and so she did not look at him. Instead she looked at Went’s serious face. Went was telling Beelah that they had been good boys.

“Then I’ll take you fishing,” Beelah said. “This afternoon I’ll take you to the brook. I’m going to dig us some worms.”

Little Phil clapped his hands and danced. The dogs began frisking over the grass again and rushed through the hedge into the road. Without another word, Beelah stood up and turned back toward the lawn mower. Mary and the boys continued on their walk, going outside the grounds along the road, where the mountains could be seen all about them, misty with the morning. And way ahead, Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke bounded along like small black reindeer. Mary felt little Phil’s hand reach up into her own, and just then the lawn mower started again. The smoke of all the morning fires had scented the cool air, and she walked slowly with the boys, past one summer house after another, looking above them at the tall peaks and at the treetops, which soon began to wave in the freshening wind.

The boys were anxious about the fishing. They talked about fish and wanted to know how fish breathed under the water. Fish were just made that way, Mary explained. The boys were getting warmed up for the day by the time they came back from the walk. But Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke were tired and they were panting and rolling their long pink tongues about. Mrs. St. John was waiting for the children, and Mary dressed them quickly in their swimming trunks, and then they were gone and she was alone.

She had a wild West comic book Albert had given her, and she sat in her room and read it. The story was about one cowboy tracking another one down. There were many adventures before the comic book ended, and then the inside back cover had an offer for building muscles on men that were puny weaklings. Mary read the offer and looked at the pictures of puny weaklings before and strong he-men afterwards. They always stood on the sandy beach at the ocean, and looking at the advertisement set her wondering how the ocean must be. For Albert had brought his mother a bottle of California ocean water when he had come from the West Coast. The bottle had some sand in it too, and when you shook it up and held it to the light, little flecks of gold could be seen glinting in the swirling sand. “But it too costly to remove the gold from the ocean, Mama,” Albert always explained to their mother. She treasured the bottle and kept it on the mantel in her little house on Division Street in Nashville so that Mary or any of the other children could shake it up and look at the ocean water and the grains of sand and the gold flecks. Poor Mama, getting so old, Mary thought. It distressed her to think her mama someday had to die. And then she nodded and almost fell asleep where she was, for the mountains all about were quiet.

SHE couldn’t have slept more than a few minutes before Mrs. St. John was back with the boys. It was time for lunch, and Mary fed them and gave them their baths. Little Phil was still chubby, for his baby fat had not yet begun to wear off, and he howled and splashed in the tub and tried to get Mary wet. But he was so cute-looking she could not be mad at him. After their baths she put them to bed and little Phil went right off to sleep. But Went wanted to hear a story, so Mary made up one about the people and how it was in slavery times. She told how this slave escaped and how the whites lit out after him with dogs, but anyway he hid in the hollow of a tree and waded the river branch and was finally taken in at a kindly humble farmhouse to be fed and to rest until he could get ready to go on again. She told how sleepy the poor old slave got after all his running and how he fell asleep out in the hayloft of the barn after they had fed him his lunch. “How come he was a slave?” said Went, yawning.

“Because he was just naturally black and they had the papers on him; because. . .”She tried to think why. “Well,” she said finally, “because that’s the way things were way back there.”

“Are you a slave, Mary?”

“Naw, they don’t have that no more,” she said. And she went on telling how tired and sleepy the slave was, and pretty soon Went was sawing logs too. and she pulled the covers over him and slipped in to take her bath. But she hadn’t any more than got in the tub before she heard fingernails on the door. It was Mrs. St. John’s way, rattling her long pretty fingernails on the door wood so the sound came through to Mary but didn’t wake the children. Mary dried herself quickly and shoved the bed aside, opening the door a crack to explain that she had been in the tub.

“Excuse me!” Mrs. St. John whispered. “The Brassfields are here from Birmingham. They want to see the boys. Are they asleep?”

“It’s all right,” Mary said. “I can get them up.”

Mrs. St. John smiled. She had already had her bath and her first drink after lunch. She was cool and soft and sun-tanned. “You dress the children and bring them up. We’ll keep them with us until you finish your bath.”

“Thank you, Mrs. St. John,” Mary said, and Mrs. St. John went away, back to the high porch where they played bridge in the afternoons. It looked out over a steep cliff and had a very fine view of the mountains — the best view in Point Rock was Albert’s way of putting it.

Mary quickly dressed herself. The boys woke up wondering why their naps had been interrupted. Little Phil yawned and then began to cry. He didn’t want to see any people, he said.

“But they want to see us, Phil,” Went said. “They like us, you’ll see.”

But Phil kept crying until he was almost dressed. Then they heard Fritz and Mr. Marmaduke barking and the lawn mower purring away, close to the house now. It reminded them of Beelah and the fishing trip, and little Phil hushed.

Mary took them out to the high porch, where the bridge tables were set up.

“What have we here?” said Mr. St. John. “Say ‘How do you do’ to Mr. and Mrs. Brassfield, Went.”

Mary stayed where she was until Mrs. St. John winked at her. Then she turned and went back to her room. As she left, she heard Went saying that Beelah was going to Lake them fishing, and Mr. Brassfield said, “Who is Beelah?” He was a square-looking man in a tan sport coat and his face was very red and jolly. As she closed the door to her room she could hear them talking on the high porch and then she heard the lawn mower. She stepped back in the tub and tried to rest her mind, thinking how the mountains really were, and in this little extra lime to hersell lazify retelling inside all the new and fine things she had seen.

After her bath she polished her white shoes and slipped into a fresh white uniform. As she entered the hall she once more heard the voices on the porch, but now the tone was different. They were playing bridge. Mr. Brassfield laughed and shouted, “I’ll be damned !”

At first Mary could not see Went and little Phil. She saw only the couples playing bridge. Then beyond them, at the rail, she caught a glimpse of the boys, both of them reaching up their hands high above them to the single smooth sapling rail and poking their bellies out over the gorge. They pulled themselves in, giggled in their secret little way, and once more bowed themselves out. Little Phil could barely reach the rail. He tottered once uncertainly.

“Three hearts.” said Mrs. St.John firmly.

“By me,” said Mr. Brasslield.

“Pass,” said Mr. St.John.

Mary leaned against the rough shingled wall. There was no way to get past the table. Mr. Brassfield was sitting back in his chair. She would have to ask someone to move. She opened her mouth to say “Little Phil?” But the words didn’t come. He was at the edge, he and Went, they were going to fall. The vision swept before her eyes of little bodies falling, falling down through the treetops and smashing on the rocks. Little Phil and Went swung out again, grinning now and looking at each other.

“And I said to him,” said Mr. Brasslield, “if you can’t keep these greens watered we can damned well find someone who will. . . .”

And Mary felt herself spinning and dizzy. She wanted to say, “Mr. Brassfield, sir, could you excuse me?” but instead she started moving and when Mr. Brasslield looked up from his cards she was already upon him. He shrank away, but not before she had bumped into him and had hit the card table. Then she was crawling across the floor bruising her knees, and behind her Mrs. St. John, who had said, “Well, now!” at first, had begun to shriek.

Startled, the boys turned. Little Phil slipped but Mary was there. With a final lunge she caught them both in her arms. Some of the adults helped her up, and she saw that Mr. Brassfield’s chair was tipped over and the table was pushed aside. Playing cards were on the floor, and now they were trying to take the boys away from her. Little Phil held her neck tightly, crying huskily and loudly against her ear. Once again she moved, going forward now, her strength surging with a nervous determined explosiveness, its terror knotting in her breast and clouding her eyes. Still holding the children, she broke away and went back down the hall, running now. She opened the door to their room and shoved the bed against it.

At first they knocked and asked her to open the door. But then someone calmly said that it would be best to leave her alone, that she would soon come out of her own accord. Besides, the children trusted her, and she could do more with them. And finally they went away.

She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there, holding little Phil and patting Went where he lay on his bed. But soon Went hushed and fell asleep, and in her lap little Phil sobbed only occasionally in his sleep and the tears dried on his long delicate eyelashes. When she was sure he was asleep, she put him down on his bed and watched him snuggle into his pillow. And then because she couldn’t help it, she lay on her own bed and gritted her teeth, forcing back the inner swells of cold anger. And finally she turned into her pillow and cried until she was weary. She hadn’t cried that way since she was a little girl. She couldn’t remember the last time, it had been so long ago.

She was lying face up. looking at the ceiling, when Beelah came. He had come quietly up the hall like a cat; it was his way of walking. And the first thing she knew he was knocking at the door, softly saying, “It’s me, Beelah. Are the little chaps ready?”

She went quickly to the bathroom then and rinsed her face. “Just a minute, Mr. Beelah,”she called brightly. Drying her face, she rushed back to where the boys were, still holding her towel. “Went? Little Phil?” she cried, shaking them awake. “Mr. Bcelah’s here. Mr. Beelah’s here to take you fishing!”