An elderly woman wearing a soft apron sits in the porch swing of a lilac Victorian house. The early May breeze through the mountains lifts a wisp of her gray hair from the long braid at her back. She brushes it aside absentmindedly as she loses herself in the fading afternoon sun.
Down the stem of a bent daffodil to its bulb, her mind travels like electricity across the roots to those of a nearby hickory tree. Down from there and even further into the earth’s core, the roots mark her path to the old cave where she meets her guides for another of many similar encounters.
“We are glad to see you,” says one.
“As always, I am honored to be here,” she says. “And soon?” she says, “Is it soon? All the signs seem….”
“Yes,” says the elder, “and your part is written and told to the heavens.”
He nods to the bear at the cave entrance. The woman takes a deep breath, smelling the smoke of the fire inside the circle. All the elders are silent. All are ready. The bear disappears.
“Where are we going?” twelve-year-old Sadie Madison asked her mama. “We’ve been driving for two days now. You said it would take two days. Aren’t we about there?”
Millie Madison looked over at her headstrong oldest child, and then peeked at the curled up form of Sammy, her five-year old son, lying in the back seat. Overwhelming love stirred inside her and hot tears threatened to flow down her cheeks. She couldn’t let Sadie see any of the emotion she held deep inside her: fear, pain, and worst of all the uncertainty.
Millie felt the place where the growth was removed from the back of her neck. Every time she turned her head, the grinding of scar tissue vibrated through her ears. How long would it take? Two months, two years? No one could tell her exactly when. They were just sure it would eventually sprout new growth just like a seed potato, the new taking over and the old left to rot away.
Millie forgot to watch the highway for just a second. She was as tired as she had ever been in her life.
God, she silently pleaded, please let this work. I know you’re leading me back to the cabin, but what then? What am I going to find? It’s been over twenty years since my last trip up this mountain. What if it’s not even there? What if it is? Has Grandma sold it to someone else? Will she be there? How old would she be now? Grandma was almost twenty years older than Mama who would have been fifty now, so Grandma should be almost seventy.
Millie vaguely remembered that day all those years ago when her mama had packed up their clothes one rainy morning and told her they were going away for a while. That while had been everlasting, forever until now. But today she was going to be home, her home-away-from-home those first seven years of her life.
Millie’s mother told her it was for the best that she didn’t see her daddy and grandparents, and as time passed Millie had almost forgotten what they looked and smelled like, except for Grandpa. He always smelled like a freshly opened pack of chewing tobacco. Millie found out that Grandpa passed away more than ten years before. That day before her mother died, she found out a lot more. Millie had always thought her daddy had sent them away, but before her mother went to sleep forever, she cleared her conscience. She said she’d left Jonathan, Millie’s father, because she had fallen in love with Luke Turner, the man with whom she spent the rest of her life. Luke had been a good stepfather to Millie, and their lives had been okay, except for the times her mother would get really sad. Sometimes it would last a few hours and sometimes several days. She would lock herself away in her room with the shades pulled tightly closed. Millie would hear her praying over and over for God to grant her peace.
Now as an adult Millie understood. She imagined that her mother never got over the guilt of taking her away from her daddy, a father who died before she could find him again.
Millie’s mind traced too many deaths, too much pain.
“Mama…Mama, are you going to answer me?” Sadie asked.
“I’m sorry, Sadie Girl. I don’t know where my mind was.” Millie said.
Sadie Girl was what her mama called her sometimes. It made Sadie feel a special closeness to her mama, like she was her special girl and nobody else’s.
“Yes, we’re almost there. We should be pulling in within the hour.”
“In where?” Sadie asked. “Where are we going?”
“Look around. What do you see?”
Sadie gazed out the front windshield. In front of her loomed a big wall of mountains.
“I see hills.”
“Those aren’t just hills, those are the Blue Ridge Mountains and they hold magic in them.”
“Magic, what kind of magic?”
“Oh, Sadie. That is something I can’t explain. It’s a sensation you’ll have to feel for yourself. I was very young when I left these hills, but I haven’t forgot their enchantment. Now as I get closer I can almost sense it as strongly as the day I left.”
Up that winding mountain road they drove. Jostling through the curves woke Sammy.
“I’m hungry. When can we stop and eat?”
As Sammy sat up, he rubbed his eyes and looked out the window up ahead at the mountains and then down through the valleys. He could see for miles, both ways.
“What is all that stuff down there? Where are we?”
“That stuff down there is houses and barns and land. It’s the same way it would look from the sky if we were up in an airplane.”
“I’m not going up in any airplane. I saw that picture in the newspaper when one fell out of the sky. I’m never going to do that, never.”
“No, honey. We’re not going to fly in an airplane, we’re going home.”
A terrified look crossed Sammy’s little face, his eyes misted and he caught his breath. “Home? But I thought we didn’t ever have to go back there again. You promised.” Sammy’s voice was soft and shaking.
Millie stopped the car at the next pullover. She turned around and looked into her son’s eyes, bright with fright. The cut beneath his eye was healing nicely, but the whole side of his face was still a dark purple.
“Come here, Sweetie.”
Sammy crawled over the seat and snuggled up next to his mama.
“No, we’re not going back to Texas. We are far, far away from there now. Look at me, both of you. I promise you as long as there is breath in me your daddy will never lay another hand on any of us ever again, especially you two.
“Let me tell you about the home we’re going to. Many years ago when I was a little girl, I stayed with my Grandma and Grandpa. They would pack up the old Ford truck with food and supplies, and we’d head off to the cabin. I can’t wait for you to see it. It is the most extraordinary place in the world. It’s small with two bedrooms and a kitchen. The living room has a big, old fireplace with a hand-looped rug in front of it. We used to sit in front of that fire at night and eat popcorn. Grandma read me books until I fell asleep. All the while she made fun of the silly noises coming out of Grandpa as he slept in his chair. But the best part was the sounds. On warm nights, we sat out on the side porch and listened to the creek ripple or sometimes roar when it had rained a lot. In the mornings we’d be wakened by the animals.”
“Animals? What kind of animals?” both children asked at once.
“Well, mostly birds and turkeys. There are huge, gigantic oak trees all around the cabin. Their enormous limbs hang down almost touching the roof. Those limbs are also the roosting place for all the local game. Grandpa always used to fuss, and try to run them off, so they wouldn’t wake us up every morning. But occasionally when they would roost somewhere else, he’d go in and out of the door a dozen times every evening looking for them. ‘I wonder where they are, Ann,” he’d say. He’d tell us they were our guardian angels looking down and watching out over us. I can almost hear them now–gobble, gobble, gobble–and the loud swishing of their wings as they took flight.”
“Mama, you’re fibbing. Turkeys are raised in big houses. They don’t live out here in trees,” Sammy said, giggling at his mama’s attempt to sound like a turkey.
“Now, have I ever fibbed to you?”
“No,” Sammy said, hanging his head a little.
“What other animals live there?” Sadie asked.
“ Oh gosh, kids, you’re just not going to believe it. You can look out the kitchen window every evening and again at sunrise and see the deer running and playing in the bottoms below. Young bucks will stand on their hind legs and paw at each other trying to see who is the stronger of the two. And the ornery old does will bunt the sides of another weaker one if she comes too close to something she is eating. They seem quite selfish, but it’s really just their instinct to survive.”
Survive? Yes, that was exactly what she would do. She was determined to bunt heads with anyone who stood in her way. She would be like that strong female deer as she stands against the elements protecting her young. Millie had been the weaker one for way too long. From this day forward no one would ever hurt her family again.
“What else is there?” Sammy asked, wide-eyed.
“There are twitchy little squirrels scampering all about, rabbits hopping around, and noisy old raccoons and opossums. I know there are bears, too, even though I never saw one. Grandpa and I saw tracks down by the spring creek one day. But the most special to me of all the animals were Heidi and Hannibal.”
“Who were they?” Sammy asked with his eyes all big and shining.
“Why, they were our outhouse chipmunks.”
“What are outhouse chipmunks?” Sadie asked with a roll of her eyes.
“First of all, do you guys know what an outhouse is?”
“It’s a house that is outside.” Sammy chimed in.
“No, silly,” Sadie corrected him, “It’s a toilet outside in a little building.”
“A toilet outside? How does that work?”
“You’ll just have to see it, Sammy, to understand. You both have seen pictures of chipmunks haven’t you?”
“Yes,” they said.
“Well, Heidi and Hannibal lived behind a board inside the outhouse. They were black and white and fluffy. Every spring they’d have their babies behind that board. As the babies grew, they’d come and go out of a hole between the rafters until one day when they would all go their different ways making homes of their own. But every winter our furry friends would come home to the outhouse. They would gather up papers, twigs, and leaves to rebuild their little nest behind the board. They would stay all winter, and come spring, the whole cycle would start over again.
“The first winter we met them, they almost gave Grandpa a heart attack. It was just before Thanksgiving and we had gone up to get everything ready for the family get-together. As usual Grandpa took the broom up to the outhouse to sweep and clean it out. Grandma and I heard him holler and ran out of the cabin to see what was the matter. There Grandpa stood holding the broom up like a weapon at four glowing little eyeballs huddled up in the corner. Who was the most afraid that day, the chipmunks or Grandpa? We’ll never know, but Grandma and I always said Grandpa was.
“What are them things? Grandpa said. Them varmints almost jumped on my head when I opened that door.
“Look, Millie, it’s just a couple of cute little chipmunks, Grandma said.
“Cute my eye! Grandpa said. I’m going to kill them pests. Just look there, they’ve shredded that whole roll of toilet paper. Take in all this mess! He roared. Grandma calmed him down by saying, leave them alone, they’ll probably run off now since you’ve scared them half to death. But they didn’t leave, they stayed right through the winter and were back again the next fall and the next and the next. From that day on, going to the bathroom was an adventure.
“I believed Heidi and Hannibal could hear and understand me when I talked to them. They became my best friends, other than Grandma. We had to be real careful though and make sure we kept the toilet paper done up tight in a bag with a twisty tie, because if you left it even a little bit open, the chipmunks would dig the paper out and add it to their nests.”
Sadie noticed her mama’s face glowed remembering the good things. She hoped she and Sammy would find that glow up here in these mountains.
Millie leaned her head back on the seat for a minute, letting all the fond memories fill her thoughts. She hadn’t even known she’d had all these things in her head. Recollection after recollection came flooding back. Again she prayed. Please God, give me time to share the magic with my children.
“Are you all right?” Sadie asked.
“Yes, I’m fine, just remembering…are you ready? One more thing kids, I’m not sure what we’ll find when we get there. Someone else may be living there, but I want you to at least see it, even if we might not be able to stay.”
“Why haven’t we ever been here before?” Sadie asked. “How could you have gone this long not seeing your grandma since she was your best friend when you were little?” So many things just didn’t make sense to Sadie.
Cranking the car, Millie answered her inquiring young daughter the best way she knew how. “Some things are better left unsaid, especially when the dead are not here to defend themselves.”
This didn’t satisfy Sadie, but she dropped it for now anyway. As Sammy crawled to the back seat, the Suburban turned back onto the highway.
“Here we go, kids. Next stop Skunk Cabbage Bog.”
“Where and what is Skunk Cabbage Bog?” Sadie had taken about all the mystery she could stand for one day.
“That’s the name of the road the cabin is on. Grandma christened it after the green, leafy stuff that grows in the creeks coming out of these mountain springs. It is light green with big leaves and it tastes awful, or at least that’s what I remember. Grandma would pick it in the springtime and cook it for Grandpa. It would stink up the whole cabin for days. Grandpa loved it. I never could understand how anyone could love to eat a weed, especially one that smelled so bad. The good part was when Grandma cooked the greens she heated me up a can of tomato soup and fried hushpuppies with lots of catsup, probably the best meal in the whole world. Maybe the cabbage will still be there and I’ll show it to you.”
“Mama, I want some hushpuppies. I’m hungry.”
“We’ll put that on our first grocery list, Sammy, when we’re settled,” Millie said.
It was early May and everything was coming to life in the mountains–plants, baby animals–and the maples were budding red, setting the hills on fire. Millie’s chest grew tight with anticipation and hope.
“What does bog have to do with skunk cabbage!” Sadie asked.
“Oh yeah, the bottomland has bogs,” Millie said.
“What is a bog?” Sammy asked, a bit of concern crossing his face. Bog sounded scary to him.
“A bog is very low, wet, spongy mountain land. In fact the bogs are a dangerous place to go. Grandpa never let me wander far from him. He always said the bogs would suck me up if I stepped into one of them.”
“Do monsters live there?” Sammy asked, his eyes getting bigger by the minute.
“No, silly,” Sadie said. “There’s no such thing as monsters.”
Millie wasn’t so sure about that, for they’d just left one in Texas.
“Well, Mama said something would suck you up. What would it be but monsters?” Sammy’s eyes grew moist with fright.
“Mud will suck you up. Really you will just sink up in it. It won’t suck you up. It’s just mud, not something alive.” Millie said, trying to calm Sammy’s fears.
“Does anything live in the bogs?” Sadie asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, something does–little tiny turtles and of course snakes and lizards and such.”
“Little tiny turtles? How tiny?” Sammy asked.
“Very tiny. They are called bog turtles, and I believe they are the smallest turtle in the world. They are also very special. I remember men in uniforms with high boots coming up here to the bogs a couple times a year to try to find them. They would count each one they saw and compare the numbers to the time before. They are almost extinct. I only saw one. It was perched on the edge of a rock close to the bank one day when Grandpa and I were walking in the pine grove. Grandpa said it was a very special thing to get to see one. They like to hide from humans, and not many people ever get a glimpse. I remember it wasn’t any larger than a quarter. It was black with yellow on its shell. We stood very still and just watched it sitting there doing nothing. I squatted down and looked right in its eyes, and it looked into mine. I wanted to pick it up, but Grandpa said that it was wild and touching it might hurt it. So I just sat there on the ground, me watching the bog turtle and the bog turtle watching me. I sat doing that until Grandpa got bored and said, let’s go. I wanted to stay longer, but it was almost suppertime. As I walked off, I looked back. The turtle was still there. It had turned around and was watching me leave. I never really thought about it until now, but it was as though he was trying to tell me something with his eyes. Oh well, I guess I’ll never know what it was.”
“I miss Grandpa Luke,” Sammy said. Talking about Grandpa had stirred up thoughts in his head.
“I know you do, but we can’t see Grandpa Luke. He lives too close to Daddy. Maybe he can come and visit us sometime when we get settled.”
“Can he? Oh boy. Can he?”
“I hope so, Baby, I hope so.”
“Do you think Grandpa Luke will always be sad now that Grandma Lindsay is in heaven?” Sadie asked.
“I don’t think so, Sadie Girl…Time has a way of healing our hurts and worries.”
Time had helped Millie. Her mother Lindsay had died from an automobile accident almost a year ago. She had been a good mother and grandmother. Millie would never let her children know the things her mama had told her the day before she died. Children didn’t need to know about how lives and families are torn apart because of the weakness of the flesh. Mama had stripped her away from her daddy and grandparents because she had been selfish. She thought life with Luke would be better than it was with her daddy. That day almost a year ago, Lindsay shared her soul with Millie and told her daughter that she had made a huge mistake all those years ago. Even though Luke was a devoted husband, Lindsay had never stopped loving Millie’s daddy Jonathan. Lindsay Turner had begged her only child Millie to forgive her, to pardon her for taking her away from her daddy, to exonerate her for not helping her leave Brad years ago.
Lindsay hadn’t wanted Millie to take the kids away from their father, as she had. But, Lindsay had no idea of the torture Brad Madison put Millie and the children through. No one knew but Sadie, Sammy, and her, for most of the bruises, burns, and cuts, were hidden by clothes, and their battered spirits were tucked deep inside away from the world’s eyes. After Lindsay passed away, Luke didn’t come around too often. He had heard Lindsay tell Millie everything, and he, also shared in the guilt. Meanwhile Brad became bolder and crueler once no one was popping in on them.
Sadie’s arm pulled out of the socket was an accident; she’d fallen off the bed. Candle burns on Millie were hidden especially from her children. Every day Brad added some kind of new persecution, until three days ago when Millie felt sure Brad was finally going to kill one of them. Sammy had been Brad’s punching bag that day. If Millie and Sadie hadn’t come in when they did, Millie wasn’t sure Sammy would be sitting in that back seat right now. They had both jumped on Brad’s back and somehow pulled him off little Sammy. That evening Millie knew it was over. That night Brad looked at them with eyes of a madman or devil–Millie couldn’t decide which one he was–and vowed to put them in a place away, far away. She knew he was not going to be happy until he had killed one or all of them.
That night Millie knew she had to escape. She fell asleep behind the locked door of her children’s room with her arms locked tightly around each of them. Under her pillow lay the long two-pronged fork she used to flip chicken on the outside grill. She had never killed anything more than a fly, but as she felt up under her pillow, her fingers rested on the coldness of the stainless steel. She’d do whatever she had to do. She’d had enough and her children had born witness to way too much. In a fitful doze, Millie dreamed of a little cabin way back in the woods. By morning it was clear to her. She knew where to go.