“Nevin’s Gift” was published in Appalachian Heritage in August 1997. When I wrote it, I was thinking of the story of my grandfather’s parents–my grandfather told us how his father left the mountains of eastern Tennessee to travel over to Hot Springs, telling his family he was going to find ‘the prettiest girl there’ and marry her. This isn’t their story, exactly, but it has elements of the time and place…!
The early edge of the sun barely peeked over the ridge of Hogback Mountain, winking through the bristly pines before losing itself in the shadowy tangles of laurel.
Lacking the strength to warm the world just yet, the sun was still a welcome sight for Sardis Miller as she climbed higher toward it, carefully holding two galvanized pails away from her legs. She had tucked the length of her skirt into her shirtwaist to make the climb easier, and she didn’t want those cold buckets to touch her bare skin if she could help it. The buckets would be colder still when she’d filled them with the spring water that rang and rippled in the woods above the house, and Sardis was still sleep-warm and drowsy from the night.
Shivering, hurrying, Sardis stepped high over an out-flung beech root that lurked in the path. She did it without thinking, from long habit; root and path as much and as little to Sardis as the hair of her head or the dented tin buckets she carried. Her feet slip-slapped against the packed dirt while her water pails jingled and danced on their wire handles.
The sharpness of the air grew deeper as she climbed, and the warmth of the house below her was lost except for the faint breath of wood smoke that wound through the trees. A long way off, she heard the mournful hoot of the mill whistle, calling the faithful, and she was glad to be high up on Hogback, free from the mill and the town and all the things that had sprung up around it. She knew nothing of stacks and smokes and days spent indoors and she hoped she never did.
“Oh, I will not weave, and I will not spin–
Knickety-knackety, new, new, new–
For the shaming of my gentle kin–
Hey, Willy-Wallachy–hey, John Dougala–Lane go rushidie,
rue, rue, rue!”
Sardis sang softly, keeping herself company with one of the old ballads her grandmothers had sung, and their grandmothers before them, probably. They fetched water long before her, carrying it down to their families who had lived and died in the coves and hollows of Hogback Mountain.
Sardis reflected that it might be easier to fetch water from lower down the mountain, but her pappy did not believe in drinking anything that had already passed a house. He wanted to splash his face in water that came straight from Heaven, he liked to say, not from a dishpan or an outhouse. His father and his father’s father had the self-same set to their ways; that’s why Sardis’ great-great-grandsir Miller had built the house so high up, on a narrow shelf he dug out the side of the mountain. His mostly Cherokee wife grew gourds to use as dippers, and store seeds, and to carry water from the same spring. There always had been a Miller in that place, as far as anybody could recollect, with a few mean hogs and a grubbed out garden spot that stretched to cover a multitude of mouths.
Tall pines frowned over the top of the path, guarding the spring that splashed out between their toes. The sun never could reach all the way down into the dark there. The heavy quiet of pine needles and fallen leaves hushed Sardis’ bare feet and her eyes adjusted to the nighttime that still slept in this damp hollow. Something moved near her in the dark, but Sardis kept her mind on the job at hand. This place was like no other on Hogback; her grandmothers before her had seen things moving here, back in the mouth of the mountain, in the places where stories grow.
The spring bubbled and splashed to itself, shivering through a bed of rocks and roots before it escaped from the shadow of the pines. Sardis stepped onto one of the slick rocks that ringed the mouth of the spring and across to the other side where the footing wasn’t so slippery. She squatted down, easing one of her buckets into the water.
Sardis held the bucket upright and let it fill, even though her hands numbed up quick from the water that splashed over them. When the water poured over the lip, she strained to pull the pail out of the spring. With a grunt of effort, Sardis set the full pail aside and put the empty one into the spring.
Something moved again in the dark beside her, something white among the trees. Sardis clawed herself up into a half crouch against the dripping rocks that overhung the spring, wet laurel slapping at her face, her pail forgotten. White, indistinct, something separated itself from the shadows and stepped closer. It appeared to be a shirt, but the face above it and the pants below were part of the darkness still. Sardis looked at the shirt, then back toward the path, judging the distance between the two. Her hands slipped over the mossy surface of the rocks behind her, searching for a loose chip that she could ease between her fingers.
“You done let your pail run over,” a voice offered from somewhere above the collar of the shirt, startling Sardis with the suddenness of it. Her gaze dipped to the bucket, brim-full and boiling over with the force of the spring. The shirt was right, but she flattened farther into the rocks, feeling the damp and the sharp of them pressed against her back. Sardis didn’t like this reasonable voice coming at her from out of the dark. She stayed still, stretched to spring if he moved.
“You ain’t got to be afraid of me,” the man in the white shirt said, holding his arms wide, palms up. He took a step toward Sardis, and she edged closer to the water, her feet feeling for a hold that would ease her out of his way. He stopped, dropped his arms.
“I seen you at the preaching last month,” he continued. You was wearing a little sprig of tansy in your hat-band. I didn’t know who you was till my brother Nonnie says to me, “thar’s Jep Miller’s oldest gal a’wearin’ that tansy in her hat.”
Sardis peered at where she suspected his face might be, straining to see someone, anyone that she recognized. “I cain’t see you,” she said flatly, “and I got work to do.” She wished her voice sounded like it wasn’t hiding away down in her stomach.
“My pappy runs a mean bunch o’ dogs,” she added, trying to breathe slow. She didn’t know which was worse–seeing something moving in the dark and wondering what it was, or seeing it and finding out there was a stranger on the mountain who seemed to know all about her hat-band.
There was a dim gleam of teeth; the man in the shirt was smiling. “Them dogs asleep on the porch? I passed them dogs on the way up here. They didn’t look too mean when they were sleeping, just kindly dog-like. Specially round the tail and all.”
Sardis felt a smile twitching the corners of her mouth. Truth was, her pappy’s dogs weren’t mean and most everybody in the whole county knew it. Her pappy was one to pet a dog quicker than kick it.
Still, the man in the white shirt needn’t think he could walk all around the place any time he liked. There was only one family in the county that was so bold in their ways, Sardis thought, trying to see his face. He had to be on of the red-headed Boones from over Troublesome Gap way, but she was danged if she could be sure which one of them he was.
“I don’t know you,” she said, breaking the silence that settled on them, making it hard to think. “But I know you ain’t got no business hanging around up here. Go on home ‘fore I call my Pappy,” Sardis warned him. She peeled herself away from the rock and bent to drag the bucket out of the spring, keeping her eyes on what she could make out of him and his white shirt all the while.
“Well,” he said, slow, “I’m Nevin Boone, from just the other side of Troublesome Gap. I aim to help you with your buckets, if you’ll let me.”
Sardis straightened up in a hurry, tugging at the hem of her dress, trying to untuck it from her waist. Her mama had often said it was shameful, a big girl like her showing her ankles and all, but Sardis liked to take a long stride in a dress without stumbling. She pulled it loose, smoothing it down into place with hands that still felt icy cold from the water. She worried a little frayed spot in the material, back and forth, back and forth.
“No need,” Sardis muttered, wondering why her tongue seemed to be sound asleep and so heavy. She could barely speak past the weight of it, but her heart surely seemed wide awake all of a sudden, jumping like a wild thing beneath the faded print of her dress.
Nevin Boone, she thought to herself, remembering the preaching service of a month past, where she’d first laid eyes on him. Her heart had stirred a little that day, too, but one glance from Pappy, out from under his all-knowing eyebrows, had jolted Sardis’ attention back to the preacher in a hurry.
Nevin Boone, she had thought, drifting away from the sermon to savor his name in her mind. His hair lit up with rusty fire when the sun came through the church windows and settled on him. She hadn’t heard another word the preacher said for wondering if that boy’s eyes were blue or brown or maybe green-hazel like her own. One of her sisters had to dig an elbow into Sardis’ side to get her mind back on the hymn they were starting to line.
Fa-me-so-so-la, fa-me-so-so-la, fa-me-so-so-la-fa-so…the notes came back to her now, and Sardis was just as tongue-tangled as she had been that day in church, remembering the way that his white shirt hung from his shoulders, shadowy hollows showing below his collarbones. He was young, she noticed, and there was room to grow into that shirt of his. It would take a few years to soften it, with hot water and strong brown soap easing the lines of collar and seams. While everyone around her shaped their notes to the song at hand, Sardis had stood silent, shaping her future.
“I kindly guessed you might be here this time of day,” Nevin said, startling the silence that had crept up between them again. “I tried to speak to you last week, down t’the store, but your pappy was in a tear to get home, seems like.”
“Seen you,” Sardis said, speaking to her bare feet instead of Nevin’s shirt. Her feet looked a lot bigger all of a sudden, and dirtier than usual. She used one big toe to rub across the top of her other foot, pushing the pine needles back where they belonged. Her face felt all hot and her hands gave up tugging at her skirt to explore the lumpy braid she’d twisted her hair into earlier as she stepped across a porch full of sleeping dogs. Her hair was even worse than her feet and probably looked like a stump full of grand-daddies. Why hadn’t she taken the time to run a comb through it, she wondered, miserable.
Someone whistled, a hollow sound like wind in a jug neck, and the sound startled Sardis and Nevin both. “I got to go,” Sardis said, stooping to collect her pails. “Pappy’s a’whistling me.” She strained to lift the heavy buckets, careful to find her footing for each step across the spring, gripping the rocks with her toes. Nevin’s warm hand closed over her elbow for a second, steadying her as she put a foot down into the pine needles on the path. Sardis jerked like he’d touched her with a live coal.
“Sorry,” Nevin said, grinning down at her. She could see him a little plainer here, where the sun was already making a difference. The buttons on his shirt looked like they were carved out of some kind of horn, brown-gray and not quite as round as store-bought. Sardis didn’t look any higher than the third button, although she’d seen that there were two more that led up to his chin. Far and faint in the stillness, Sardis heard dogs and voices all mixed up together–Pappy and his pack, nosing around the yard, stretching, gaping, shaking themselves up for the day ahead.
“I better be goin’ now,” Sardis said, “or Pap will set the dogs up here. They’ll tear you up, too, if you ain’t halfway back to Troublesome Gap by then,” she smiled in the direction of Nevin’s buttons. One had a tiny black line running through it, like a crack. She wondered if he knew that.
“Well, maybe I will clear out fore them critters get here. I ain’t looking to be licked to death today nohow,” Nevin said, showing his wide, easy grin. “Reckon that passel of no-goods’ll get used to me pretty soon, though, cause I aim to be passin’ through this way some.” He put his hands in his pockets and looked back down the path. Sardis could hear the dogs plain now, yapping and scrabbling and burning daylight to find her.
“Here. These ‘uns are for you,” Nevin said, holding out one hand to her, fingers folded carefully around something in the hollow of his palm. Sardis set one bucket down, eyeing the space between his hand and the button just under his chin. Her hand curled against her side, but she raised it up a little, forcing it to open. She could feel the warmth of Nevin’s hand over hers, barely touching, like a whisper. The hair on his wrists was the same dull copper as the hair of his head in the morning half-light, and it curled back against the cuff of his sleeve. Sardis swallowed hard, sure Nevin could hear the knocking of her heart over the barking dogs that were just out of sight among the trees.
He set three feathers in her upturned palm, cradling her hand in both of his for a moment. The feathers looked dark and smooth, with downy gray fluff still clinging to the quills. Sardis bent closer to see better, noticing the delicate pattern of white whorls on each feather.
“Wren tails,” she breathed, and even that was enough to catch under their edges and stir them a little. “That’s the luckiest thing there is,” Sardis finished, shaking her head in wonder at Nevin’s gift.
“All spring and summer,” Nevin told the top of Sardis head, “I watched them things a’building and a’worrying and a’laying by, till they was tucked up snugger than houses. Danged if we didn’t have the best luck while they was there, a’watchin’ us right back and twice as hard.” Nevin laughed, remembering. “But anyhow—“
He was interrupted by a mass of dogs, yelping and swirling around him and Sardis. Nevin snatched up the water pail before the dogs lapped out of it and held it high. “These belong to you, ma’am?” he asked, using his free hand to push down the most persistent dog, a black-and-tan that seemed determined to kiss Nevin right on the lips. A frantic little feist danced on its hind legs, trying to separate Nevin from his pants, and a couple of muddy paw-prints suddenly bloomed on the front of his shirt.
“You dogs! Hi, you dogs!” Sardis’ pappy yelled from the clearing between the house and the spring. “I’m cuttin’ me a switch, hear? Y’all git on home or I’ll wear you out!” he shouted.
Dogs milled around Nevin’s knees, half-staggering him. The bucket wavered, but he kept it upright.
Sardis tucked the feathers into the pocket of her dress, kneed a dog out of her way, and stood on tiptoe to reach for the water-bucket. Nevin lowered the handle into her hand, easing its weight until she was able to balance both pails together.
“I thought maybe you’d wear them feathers in your hat-band, next time you come to preachin’. If you care to,” Nevin muttered, his voice trailing away. A long-eared red hound sniffed one last time at Nevin’s boots before turning tail down the path after the others. Sardis smiled down at her dress pocket, where the feathers rested lightly over her heart.
“I reckon maybe I care to,” she said, looking at Nevin’s face for the first time, seeing his eyes were green-hazel, just like hers.