Short Story Friday: In the Shadow of the Mountain

Angel’s Rest, Pearisburg, Virginia

It’s Friday and the weekend is ahead. I’m planning on taking a trip to the hometown that I put off from a couple of weeks back when they got ten inches of snow on a Saturday.

In. March.

So, I thought it would be a good time to introduce this new “feature.”

For now, and for the foreseeable future, Fridays around here will be “Short Story Friday.”

Instead of the usual brilliant commentary, I’ll post a story I’ve written recently, or not so recently.

Today’s story is on that I wrote as part of The Mighty Pen Project. This is a project of The Virginia War Memorial and is targeted to veterans. I was lucky enough that there was space and I was grafted in. It was an honor, and a challenge, and often humbling, to be around the table with these men and women under the teachings of Richmond author David L. Robbins. I came in with no military experience but I was welcomed and appreciated. And, I learned many, many things.

This story is called In the Shadow of the Mountain. It is written based on the life of my great Aunt Clara and is basically a day in her life. I was privileged to be asked to read this at the ceremony at the end of our class.

On a personal note to my cousins who may read this and be tempted to correct my telling of the story, please keep in mind that this is fiction, this is not documentary. If something is not exactly the way you recall it, it’s not supposed to be.

But enough of that. Here’s

In the Shadow of the Mountain

Clara awakens to the rooster crowing as she has every day for sixty years. Gnarled hands pull her mother’s quilt from the feather bed. She dresses in her simple cotton dress, thick stockings, and boots, and ties on a bonnet to shield her face from the ravages of the sun and hide from visitors the abscess above her eye.

The house, built by her father in 1902, a simple wooden structure with a porch across the front, nestles in the shadow of the mountain named for him. In the evenings Clara enjoys sitting on the porch high above the river bed.

This morning is not the time for sitting. On her way through the kitchen she stokes the fire in the potbellied stove. The coffee must wait until the cow is milked and the eggs are collected.

Clara shuffles to the porch where the mountain spring runs through a gutter into an earthen crock. The clear, icy water spills over the edge of the crock off the porch onto the un-weeded wildflowers below.

She splashes her face with the cool water. She drinks from the communal tin dipper. The dogs greet her. She spoons water into their dish though they prefer to drink directly from the spring. The cat, swollen with this year’s second litter of kittens, raises her head then continues her bath showing no interest in the water waiting for the warm milk Clara will soon provide.

On her way to the barn Clara stops by the privy. In the barn, the cow gives a knowing nod. Clara bends over the milk stool. Her arthritic hands grab the teats to fill the bucket with warm fresh milk. The bucket full, Clara gently pats the cow as she fills the trough with hay. The cow has no name. Clara never names the food she may eat.

Milking done, she collects the eggs; six brown and two green. She tosses out food for the chickens. They cluck their thanks.

Back in the house Clara takes a warm bowl of milk to the cat. She is not inclined to share the precious commodity every day, but the cat has to keep up her strength for her kittens.

Clara pours the remainder of the milk into crocks she carries to the springhouse. The same water she drinks keeps the milk and butter cool and fresh.

She brews her coffee strong and black in a blue enamel pot. From a tin in the cabinet she pulls one of yesterday’s biscuits. She crumbles it into her mug. The coffee done she pours it over her biscuit for her breakfast. She washes her mug and spoon. Tossing a biscuit to each of the dogs, she heads out to the garden.

In the morning sun she hoes the rows of corn, beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. She will have tomatoes soon. It will be a good year for corn.

Clara looks up as the dogs run off the porch and down the dirt lane toward the gate.

Arthur and the boy are coming up the hill. Afraid of the dogs the boy clings to Arthur’s hand. Arthur’s other hand carries a Valleydale lard bucket that Clara knows is full of wild blackberries. Arthur will trade them for butter and buttermilk.

Arthur is Clara’s oldest brother. They grew up in this house together. Arthur and the others moved into town, but Clara stayed to care for her mother, now some twenty years dead.

Clara knows the boy’s name. She knows the names and birthdates of all the great nieces and nephews. But she also knows that to Arthur, this child is simply the boy. He is the youngest of the grandchildren, the youngest of Arthur’s youngest son. Clara also calls him boy.

On the porch after the boy helps himself to water he settles down to pet the cat. Clara brings Arthur a cup of coffee. They sit in the rockers gazing down toward the river.

Arthur brings news from town and family, and tobacco. As Clara places a plug of the sweet tobacco in her jaw she asks Arthur questions about the latest family illness, new job, or new baby. Arthur answers as he lights his cigar.

Clara last left the mountain when their mother died. She has no need to go into town. Though none of the trio knows it, she will go soon for Arthur’s funeral.

Clara prefers to send to town for the few things she needs; sugar, flour, coffee, all bought with the butter she churns and the eggs she collects. She relies on Arthur and others to bring her news. Arthur alone brings her tobacco.

Arthur heads to the woodpile to finish splitting the cord of wood Clara had begun the day before. She assures him she can finish, even though the mass on her forehead began when she hit herself with an axe. She lies and blames the sun.

When Arthur finishes with the wood, he drinks deeply from the spring. Resting but a minute he tells the boy it is time to go.

Clara brings from the springhouse the butter and buttermilk for Arthur to take home. She smiles through ragged teeth and tells the boy to be good.

Her company gone, Clara takes the blackberries to the kitchen. She makes a blackberry pie which Arthur and the boy will enjoy the next day.

The pie cooling on the windowsill Clara sits down to a simple supper of cured ham and potatoes brought up from the root cellar.

On the porch she takes another plug of tobacco. She settles in her favorite rocker. As the last of the daylight begins to fade from the valley she works carefully on the cross stitch sampler. Happy the Home when God is There. The dogs stretch lazily at her feet.

When she can no longer count the stitches she briefly lights a kerosene lamp to get into bed. Her nieces and nephews had insisted on wiring the house for electricity, but Clara has no need for electric lights. She only needs to be able to see to pull back the quilt and sink her aches into the feather bed. She lifts the soot stained chimney from the kerosene lamp to blow out the flame.

The rooster will crow again soon.


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