2021 Porch Prize Winner in Fiction
At dusk, the far stretch of shifting blues and greens where the mist over the mountains met the sky reminded Sass of an ocean, or rather how she imagined it. People say an ocean never stops moving, that it changes colors depending on the clouds passing by, and that you can get lost just staring at the endless reach of it. It sounded downright lonesome. The mountains stretched and reached far off like that, too, as far off as you looked, but to Sass they also folded you close inside the trees and streams and old grown-over trails from deer, loggers, and footsteps of the Cherokee who’d lived there first. Sometimes, when she idled long enough to stare, long enough to hear the breeze whisper through the tall hickories like the sigh of a ghost, Sass imagined that the rounded forest ridges of the Appalachian hills moved. Not by some miracle of faith that some people believed could do such a thing, but by sheer force of their own will. She swore if she looked just right, she could see those hills push upward, like great shoulders shrugging with a so it be, or maybe the kind of give-out sigh her daddy breathed when he crawled up out of those hills of a morning, teeth shining bright in his coal-blackened face.
Though today the far-off ridges seemed to lie still, Sass knew all the busy critters that rustled underneath the trees—deer, turkey, foxes, and bears, even painters, though these she’d never seen, only ever heard them scream like a woman scared to death. Panther, she corrected. The school teacher had once pronounced the word, and Sass turned it over in her mouth, whispering it out loud and biting the tip of her tongue on the middle sound—thuh. Funny how folks outside the hills said different words but meant the same thing.
Sass didn’t have time to lollygag and watch the mountains move today. She was hunting sang so she could get a birthday present. She’d just turned twelve, and her mama warranted she had enough sense to keep clear of the snakes in the woods, or if she didn’t by now, some fangs might serve her right. A full satchel of ginseng would bring a nice sum, and her mama had said she could pick a piece of birthday candy from the mine store if she found enough. Twelve was a mite big for candy, but she wasn’t about to refuse the offer once it came her way. Sweet is sweet, anyhow.
Sass trailed along by herself in Ginko Holler, where the roots of the poplar trees clung for dear life to the steep rocky slopes. September was school time, but there weren’t many days she could be spared to walk the miles to school and back, the way her daddy saw it. Tending her little sister and weeds in the garden were her jobs, the main ones. She hummed along through the undergrowth, snippets of familiar hymns or reels, keeping her eyes peeled for the flashes of red berries beneath five leaves.
The warm autumn air hung thick and close as a cloak around her shoulders as Sass knelt to dig at the base of the plants. Her older brother, Finn, had taught her to find and dig the roots when she was just five. It was easy to talk him into a walk in the woods back then, even if he had to hoist her onto his back and tote her most of the way, her small fingers gripping the collar of his shirt. The clear mountain air is good for what ails you, he’d told her, and she’d known even then he was thinking of having to forsake it for the dark dusty mines the following year when he’d turn twelve. More than anything, Sass wished Finn could be free of that burden. Sass’s fingers dropped the root into her satchel, her fingers black with dirt, and she tied the neck of the bag with a satisfied jerk of the twine. That was another thing Finn had shown her: how to make a slip knot that could snug up a bag quick as a long-eared hare.
Usually lit by shafts of sunlight reaching down through the swaying treetops, the woods dimmed, and Sass squinted to see under the thicker brush. She stopped humming, and without the lilting notes filling her ears, the full quiet of the woods settled like a last breath before sleep came. The noisy black crows that had announced her appearance earlier shushed their yellow beaks. As heavy drops of rain splashed against the leaves underfoot, the wind started to mean business. A brief flash dazzled her eyes, and she caught the movement of a pair of panicked squirrels leaping across the treetops.
“One, two, thr—” Sass counted automatically and quit when the bass crack of thunder shuddered deep inside her. The brewing storm was closer than she’d thought. With one hand she brushed a strand of sweaty brown hair out of her eyes, and she quickened her steps. Sass smelled the rain now, the moist tang of the earth as it opened its anxious, thirsty throat. The rain, and something else. The spray of light freckles on her nose danced as she wrinkled her nose to pick up the spicy scent.
“Knew it,” she said, marching towards the telltale leaves. “Mitten, oak, and hickory,” she recited, already digging out the root of the familiar plant. Her mama would be pleased. She could make some spiced tea or keep it on hand for a salve. It was sassafras, the curious sapling that grew three different shaped leaves on one tree. She held the unearthed sapling in her hand, shifted the strap of her sang bag on her shoulder, and turned toward home, the patter of raindrops faster now.
Sass used the larger saplings as handholds as she made her way across the slope above the holler. Thunder again, and it didn’t matter how long since the lightning; the storm was already upon her. The leaves she’d crunched through on the way to the sang patch turned soft and slippery, and more than once Sass’s grip slipped as she held onto the saplings uphill to keep her footing. Home was still a mile or more off. Sass fixed her eyes on the far end of the slope. Once she got there, the land would level off into a clearing beyond and she could make a run for it, rain or no.
A sound, and Sass knew before she saw it that she’d come upon a rattler. It sounded like the gourd full of dried beans they gave her sister, Hiccup, to play with when she was a baby. Sass froze, mid-step, her head swiveling as her eyes swept the leafy ground to find the cunning rascal. Just there, it lay coiled to her left, down slope from where she walked. She clapped and stomped her feet, issuing her own warning she hoped the snake would heed. Its tongue darted in and out of its smiley snake mouth, and she narrowed her eyes at its smug insistence that she step aside.
Sass took two careful steps uphill, trying to give it a wide berth and get back on her way. Her too-tight boots had grown muddy, and the wet leaves gave little traction. She scrabbled, trying to hold onto a branch, a rock, or anything that would let her gain purchase and stay put instead of tumbling downhill into the rocky creek bed below. One more step and she’d be far enough past the snake that she could continue on. Hateful thing. It coiled tighter, the rattles whirring like Mama’s tambourine by the fire after supper. Sass stretched her right foot forward in slow motion. One more step. Lightning flashed and glinted against the black eyes of the rattler. She raised her cane pole, ready to bring it down upon the serpent’s head if it struck.
The crack of a gunshot split the heavy air in the woods, louder than any thunder, and Sass ducked into a crouch, grabbing at the cane pole as it tumbled out of her reach and caught in the brush below. The snake flew backwards into the air, the rope of its body a cracked whip uncoiling. Sass jerked her head around, searching uphill for the shooter. She clutched the sang bag to her side. Moonshiners or vagrants from the train would consider her harvest a nice surprise, but she wasn’t about to give up on that birthday present just yet.
At the top of the hill stood a tall gray mule the color of the storm clouds that roiled above. Its pale muzzle fairly glowed in the dim light of the woods. Sass squinted as the rider holstered the pistol and held up two empty hands. No moonshiner, then. She drew a breath, and when she glanced down at her feet, her eyes lit on the fresh-dug sassafras sapling lying across her boots. Snatching it up, she hustled the remaining distance across the slope and reached the level path towards home, breathing hard. The rain beat down steady, and her wet dress clung to her chest and skinny legs.
The mule and rider waited above the rise where the path emerged from the woods. It was a woman, but she wore no skirt to ride. She sat astride like a man, with trousers like Sass’s daddy. An oil-coated rain slicker draped the woman’s back, covering most of the saddle and the bags that fell on either side of the mule’s flanks. The mule regarded Sass with a blithe glance, unperturbed by the rain, the shot, and the breathless wet girl who stared at him with wide eyes the color of winter wheat.
“You alright?” asked the woman. She had a soft, easy voice, almost hard to hear in the downpour. It wasn’t the voice Sass expected to come out of the mouth of a lady snake killer. She nodded, wiping the rain water out of her eyes.
“I could ‘a managed him.” Sass said, brandishing the dripping sassafras sapling.
“That’s a fact. But I didn’t fancy having to collect you from the bottom of that creek. Junebug would’ve had something to say about it, too.” The woman slapped the mule twice on his neck and peered through the rain-dark woods. “You live close? I can give you a ride if you’ve a mind.”
Sass shook her head. What would her daddy say if she were to come riding up the path on the back of a strange mule with an even stranger woman? One gunshot today was a good plenty. “I can manage,” she said again. “It ain’t far and I’m already wet.” She started down the path and had only trotted several feet before she looked back. The woman had turned the mule—what was his name? Junebug?—after her and followed along behind. Sass stopped and whipped back around with an audible sigh.
She planted her feet and stood with her hands on her hips. “You need something?” It was queer to see a stranger in these parts, especially riding a mule in a rainstorm. Folks poking their noses in this area generally turned out to be revenue dogs hunting stills or vagrants wanting something from the nothing folks had to give. Junebug stopped and snorted, shaking the rain from his eyes and jawing his bit in a patient circle.
“I’m calling on folks in the hills,” she said, and Sass had to strain to hear her. “Was hoping I could pay a visit to your house if it’s not far. I have some books to share.”
“Books?” Sass wasn’t sure she’d heard right. “What for?”
“How ‘bout we get along to a nice dry place and I’ll show you? I can help your mama get supper. I brought along some sugar and apples, enough for a pie.”
Sass’s brows lifted. A birthday pie did sound nice, and Mama was always on about needing an extra pair of hands. Maybe her daddy wouldn’t mind so much if this lady had something real to bring instead of a list of I’m-a-needings.
“It’s a free country.”
The mile home down the creek bed slipped by beneath her in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Shaded by the hardwoods surrounding it, Sass’s house appeared in the distance, the tentative reach of its crooked split-rail fence marking the yard’s perimeter. Wood smoke wisped from the stacked stone chimney and hung in a blue fog just under the damp trees, smelling of welcome and warmth. The house was made of mostly hand-hewn logs and a simple plank porch that ringed the square dwelling like starched crinoline. Two skinny hounds with mottled gray hides and lolling tongues lay draped on the porch beneath one of the small front windows. Immediately, the dogs leapt to their feet, the hair bristling down their backs, baying and hollering a warning to the cabin’s inmates. Now that Sass was soaked to the bone, the rain had let off to a sprinkle.
Like twinkling stars in a night sky, a trio of faces appeared at the windows, which were nothing more than shuttered cut-outs in the logs to let in air and light. Strips of over-used muslin hung on either side and passed for curtains. Sass counted her older sister, Fern, her younger brother, Cricket, and the youngest sister, Hiccup, her head bobbing up and down as she tried to see over the sill. No sign of Finn or Daddy.
“Hush your racket,” Sass yelled to the hounds. “Go on, shush now.” At her voice, they stopped baying, and their long tails thumped the porch railings, their hind ends wriggling with delight. Sass glanced back at the woman, still astride her mule. She’d tried to sound mean, but she couldn’t resist the way they nosed her palms while their paws danced all over the tops of her boots.
“This ‘un’s Digger,” she said, pointing to the larger of the two, his gray head broken by a streak of black that ran from the tip of his nose to either ear, like he’d gone snout first into a mud hole. “And that ‘un’s Tuck.” The smaller dog, white with four brown freckled feet, stood with his eyes half-closed in pleasure while Sass absently rubbed his ears. “Once they know you, they ain’t mean. Don’t pay ‘em no nevermind. They might slobber you to death is all.”
Sass’s mama stepped out onto the porch, and a tow-headed wisp of a girl squealed at the sight of Sass and pushed out the door and down the steps. Sass handed her mama the sassafras sapling and absorbed the blow of her sister’s embrace.
“This here’s Hiccup,” she laughed. “And now you’re wet as I am, silly.” Sass busied herself unsticking her dress from her skin. “And Mama.”
The woman stood up in her stirrups, cocked her weight to her left foot, and swung out of the saddle, landing lightly on the muddy ground and shaking out her oil slicker cloak. Sass swallowed and the words tumbled out. “Mama, this here’s a lady I met with on the trail. She says she’s come visiting and could help you with supper and maybe a pie.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the woman said, holding out her hand. “Name’s Amanda. I don’t mean to put you to any trouble, ma’am. I ran into your daughter on my route, and then the rain hit.”
Mama stepped down to the second porch step, and Sass measured the two of them, now eye-to-eye. The woman was unusually tall.
“Rai MacInteer,” Mama said, offering her hand, her chin tilted up. “Short for Rainelle, but only my mama ever called me that, God rest her. We don’t get many visitors up here. Not unless you’re kin or coming for tax money.”
The book woman shook her head as she drew the reins over Junebug’s long ears. “I’m neither. Got a job takin’ books to folks in the hills. If you’ve a mind, I’ve brought the makings of a pie I can share, and you and your children can look through what I have.”
Rai drew herself up tall and brushed the front of her dress with her hand. “You can just turn right around back the way you came. We don’t take charity. Lotta folks a lot worse off.” Her dark eyes fixed the woman with a hard stare. Sass didn’t envy the woman this attention. They could go without dinner for a week and her mama would give a few extra eggs to a neighbor who was going on eight days of hungry. Some days, Sass admitted, she would rather have a bite of pone than an empty stomach full of pride. She held her breath. She’d already been tasting that apple pie in her head, imagining the sweet dissolving on her tongue.
The book woman shook her head. “No,” she laughed, likely knowing the absurdity of even offering such a thing. “Of course. This is a new idea from FDR, for folks who live too far out to get to schools. He means to bring books to them. A delivery service for news and such, no charge or barter.”
“You say you got the innards of a pie with you?”
“I do,” the woman nodded. “Apple, with some extra sugar.”
Sass caught Fern and Cricket exchange a glance. With times as lean as they’d been, a surprise like an apple pie—with sugar—was an unexpected delight.
Sass breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the promise of apple pie had saved her from a tongue lashing for bringing a stranger right to their doorstep. Her daddy was partial to apples. Finn would sure enjoy a slice, too, she thought, her heart dancing at the prospect of bringing a bit of happy into his dark days.