The southern Appalachians hold a special place in my heart. A few years ago I finally had the chance to visit the Hensley Settlement, within Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. This community on Brush Mountain, established in 1904, remained home to two extended families until 1951. It is remote, accessible only by an eight-mile hike or a guided tour via a small park service van. Once on the mountain a visitor can look across the way, or out of a cabin window, and see a landscape completely devoid of modern intrusions.
The ranger providing the tour on the day I visited did a superb job of bringing the settlement to life in our imaginations. I found one offhand comment particularly intriguing, though. After showing us the trap door to an interior root cellar, she said, “The man who built this cabin must have loved his wife. He didn’t want her to have to go outside to fetch potatoes in the winter.”
In my motel room that night, I thought about her remark. How else might someone in this time and place have demonstrated their feelings? (Authors think about such things a lot, since “show, don’t tell” is hammered into our brains at every workshop and critique session.)
I began scribbling. The result was the following poem.
He never said he loved her,
but he dug a ‘tater hole by the hearth
so she wouldn’t have to go outside.
He split extra rails, and stuffed hay in the deep fence angles
to catch snow before it drifted across her path
when she fetched eggs in bitter dawns.
He ordered a cookstove at the valley store
and groaned it up the mountain
with a stout sled and team of oxen,
and he built a fire at four each morning
so the kitchen was warm when she started breakfast.
She rarely met his gaze,
but she made twelve-layer apple stack cakes
because his eyes crinkled at the corners when he ate them.
She scrubbed sand into wide popple boards
with a break-back broom so the floor
stretched smooth white beneath his boots.
She chopped her own kindling so he’d have time
to play his fiddle on summer evenings.
She saved flour sacks’ shiny blue liners
and papered the wall by his pillow
so the firelight glowed pretty as he drifted to sleep.
They never rose above their raisin’ with fancy talk,
just pondered the night-dazzled skies and knew
she had captured the stars in her apron,
he the moon in his sickle-scarred hands.
(Originally published in Appalachian Heritage)