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Dearly Forbes arrived at the top of the trace, his red head poking up first, barely showing above the tall meadow grasses at the top of the treeless mountain. The boy's hair stuck to his face, and his eyes seemed bright as a bird's even from the distance between us. His scrawny shoulders were bare and browned by the summer sun, and wide galluses held up trousers big enough to be his pa's.
When he saw me standing on the porch of my chinked-log cabin, he made his way across the meadow, grinning all the way. "Fairwyn March! Thar's a body acomin' through the piny woods to see ye!"
I couldn't help smiling back, so contagious was his pleasure at being the one to bear the news. "Well now, Dearly," I said, "that's not such an unusual event, in my thinking. Might it be Selah with some eggs? Perchance she's bringing a fresh-shot razorback ready for smoking?" Selah Jones was a good aim, known to all in these parts, and such a prize wouldn't surprise me.
He climbed the porch stairs, huffing and puffing. "This one's a furriner," he said between noisy gulps of air, "a furriner like as ye've never seen afore."
With this, I indeed perked up. "I'll bring ye some water, son, if ye care to sit a spell." I nodded to one of the two stick rockers near me.
"Yes ma'am,that'd be right fine."
I returned from the kitchen a few minutes later with a cup of water. He gulped it sprawled in the rocker next to where I sat. I resisted the urge to ruffle his hair. He smelled like a warm puppy that had been playing too long in the sun. This beanpole boy had long ago twisted himself around my heart.
"Now then," I said. "Tell me about this furriner on his way for a visit."
Dearly leaned forward and gave me a nod. "Well ma'am," he said, rolling his eyes with importance. "He calls himself a professor. Says he hails from North Carolina. Rode right up to Caudill's General Store, slid off'n his horse, and announced he'd come to study our folk tales. Says he's awritin' a book on us." Dearly reached down to his ankle and gave it a scratching.
"Then why's he coming to see me?"
"Everbody knows ye're the bestest song scribe round these parts. And the bestest storyteller to boot." He rested his back against the slats of the rocking chair, pushing it to and fro with his bare feet, taking pleasure in the rhythmic creak on the weathered boards of the porch. He shook his head slowly. "I like to never seen anybody dressed like the professor. All done up with a highfalutin hat and fancy trousers. Carrying a walkin' stick with a silvery knob." He grinned again, shaking his head. "And ye should see his poke. Made o' shiny leather with brass letters on hit."
Few outsiders came to Sycamore Creek. I could count on one hand the numbers who'd made their way to where I lived with my granddaddy Poppy. "When you expect this professor to land at my front door then?"
"He's marchin' up the trace right now. Huffin' worse'n me."
"So you passed him on your way?"
"Yes indeedy." He let his gaze drift from my eyes.
"Dearly Forbes," I scolded, causing him to look back, "did this professor ask you to show him the way?"
Dearly stared hard at his feet, then reached down to pick at one grimy toe. "Well now, I reckon."
"But you ran off without him?"
"I jes' moved up the trace faster'n him."
"Dearly, ye need to go back and fetch him. Right this minute. The poor man may already be lost."
The boy stood, scratched his head, and hiked up one of the galluses that had slipped off his shoulder. "Well, if'n ye say so." He slumped off the porch, looking put out. He halted at the bottom step and gazed back with a grin. "Can I stay then, listen to ye tellin' the man yet stories?"
"If that's what he's come for, then yes, lad. Ye can stay."
He skipped off through the meadow, bare feet flying, the afternoon sun gleaming on his orange hair.
I shelled beans from the back garden as I rocked in my rocker and waited for Dearly to pop up again from the trace. I'd just finished the second bushel and was starting on the third when, sure enough, Dearly skipped from the hilltop to the edge of the meadow. His grin was wider than before, and he shouted a big hello.
For just an eye bat I thought he was alone, but before I could let out a disappointed sigh, up from the trace rose another figure.
The professor stood there, shading his eyes and gazing my direction. His head back, shoulders erect and proud, he stayed in that one spot while I stood, ready to walk out to him. He looked magnificent and golden in the slant of the sun. Then with Dearly Forbes at his side, he began striding through the grasses toward me, scaring up a joree-bird into a flutter, whilst all around him swallowtails flitted and bees worked the mountain daisies and purple pennyroyals.
Minutes later he was on my porch, tapping his walking stick against a loose board as if such motion might nail it in place. He gave me a smile that flushed my cheeks, and I stared dumbfounded into his eyes.
Poppy and Me had a stack of books that I'd read so often I could scarce make out the gold-stamped words on their worn leather spines. At the top lay Great Expectations by Mr. Dickens, and on page six of that book there was a man that long ago had captured my spinster heart: Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such an undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites.
How I dreamed of such a one coming to my door. This man, with his flaxen curls and pale blue eyes, so resembled my imaginings that immediately-even before he spoke-I figured him to be good natured and sweet tempered, the same as Mister Dickens's man on page six.
The professor's lips tilted upwards again, which truly set my heart aflutter. "Miss Fairwyn March?"
I nodded slowly, thinking I could not bear to keep my eyes locked onto his pale eyes a heartbeat longer. So I studied my lace-up brogans. No one had ever called me "Miss" before. Just plain Fairwyn. It was a fitting name, Poppy used to say when I was young, because of my delicate look and my way of moving quiet-like along the trace. Like unto floating, he said. Though I knew as well as he did that "delicate" was not a consideration that did me proud in these parts. It didn't help that I was known for my dulcimer playing instead of my sweet-egg pie.
"My name is Zebulon Deforest," he said, drawing my eyes to his once more.
"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance," I said.
"And I, yours." He was still smiling.
Dearly spoke up from behind me. "This here's the furriner who's come to hear yer music, ma'am."
Zebulon Deforest laughed, a sound that warmed my heart. "I've heard you're the best song scribe in these parts." His rushing words reminded me of the swift-moving waters of Sycamore Creek in the spring. "I'm told you sing and play a dulcimer." He frowned, obviously puzzled. "A fairy dulcimer."
I laughed softly, enjoying the admiration I saw in a place deep behind his eyes. "Years ago such a tale was begun," I said. "I suppose on account of the way I play." I gave him a half-smile and shrugged. "I'm prone to hold my face heavenward whilst strumming. And I have a certain way of telling tales and singing at the same time. Story songs, fairy tales, some about my kinfolk from years past. I suppose folks in these parts have mistaken me for the fairies in the stories I tell."
He leaned forward, furrowing his brow. "Your language," he said, "it's not the same as the others I've met. Are you from here? Originally, I mean. Are you from the Great Smokies?"
"From Blackberry Mountain itself," I said. The door was open, and I gestured toward the bookshelf beside the fireplace. "The language in my books isn't like that of my mountain kin. I suppose I speak both ways, depending on who it is I'm speaking to."
"May I have a look?" His eyes met mine with a spark of curiosity, and I nodded. He strode to the bookshelf, Dearly trailing at his heel. I stood by the doorway, watching as the professor leaned forward, squinting in the dim light, running his fingers over the spines. "Great Expectations ..."
"Yes." I smiled at the back of his flaxen head.
"Works by Tennyson, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen ... Melville ... Charlotte Brontë."
He glanced back to me in amazement, then returned to making his way through the stack, reading each tide aloud. "The Old Curiosity Shop, The Deerslayer ... Thoreau's Life in the Woods."
"One of my favorites," I said, leaning against the doorframe.
He grinned. "Fitting." His face sobered. "You've read these all?"
"Are ye gwine to tell yer tales?" Dearly said. "When are ye, ma'am?"
The professor chuckled at the boy's impatience, then looked to me once more, raising a well-formed brow. "Would you be so kind?"
"'Tis no trouble," I said and nodded to the porch.
He passed through the doorway trailed by Dearly, and I reached for my dulcimer that was propped in the corner of the cabin. When again I joined them, Dearly was sitting on the top step, and the professor was in the rocker nearest the end of the porch floor. Laying my dulcimer across my lap, I settled into the rocker nearest my bushel baskets of fresh-shelled beans.
The professor leaned forward, his gaze on my instrument. "Did you make it yourself?"
I strummed a few chords. "Most do in these parts, but I've never learned the art. My granddaddy-Poppy-made this one for me. 'Tis from his own recipe, as he calls it. Won't tell anyone his secrets."
Zebulon Deforest studied me as if taking note of every word I said. "Whom did he learn from?"
"He's never said." I shook my head. "Poppy's one to keep things to himself. 'Tis my prayer that someday he'll pass along his dulcimer-making secrets to me." I stroked the smooth soundboard, relishing its warmth beneath my fingers. "Making something of such beauty would be a wonder."
"But are ye gwine to sing fer the furriner?" Dearly said, scooting closer. "Whyn't ye sing the one about `Yonder Mountain'?"
With a wink and a nod toward Dearly, I lifted the dulcimer closer and strummed a few chords in the key of G. Tapping my foot, I began a lively rendition, lifting my voice in song.
At the foot of yonder mountain there runs a clear stream, At the foot of yonder mountain there lives a fair queen. She's handsome, she's proper, and her ways are complete. I ask no better pastime than to be with my sweet.
Dearly clapped his hands and joined with me on the next verse.
But why she won't have me I well understand; She wants a freeholder and I have no land. I cannot maintain her on silver and gold, And all the other fine things that my love's house should hold.
I glanced at the professor, who seemed better pleased than a chap chasing butterflies.
"Reminiscent of Cornish lore. Pre-Saxon, I think," he murmured, biting his lip. "Pre-Christian perhaps."
I laughed, shaking my head slowly. "I'm not sure of your meaning, but I've heard tell our kinfolk brought it from Virginia."
"These are the threads I'm searching for, Miss March," he said.
"You can call me Fairwyn."
"An unusual name." He gave me another smile and nodded.
"Hain't atall," Dearly piped up from the stairs. "Everbody round these parts knows Fairwyn March."
"It means light," I said to Zebulon Deforest. "Fairlight would be another way of saying it." I could not help sounding proud. It had been a family name as far back as anyone could remember.
He studied me, his eyes crinkling at the outer corners as he puzzled. "There is a place by that name, your name-Fairlight-in England. And Wyn ..." He paused with a frown. "That's Welsh, is it not?" He leaned forward with interest. "Do you know anything more about your ancestry?"
"My family's been in the Appalachians at least a hundred years," I said. "Tales are told of how they came ..."
His elbows resting on his knees, his fingers dangling between, he seemed keen for me to continue.
"Poppy says it was his granddaddy Anwar March who came to our land first. He was a smithy in Wales, a seaside village called Aberystwyth. He took a wife from Fairlight-the same we were just talking about-a lass who was orphaned and who'd come to work as a maid in the big house where my great-great-granddaddy lived. She was the first to be called Fairwyn, from Poppy's recollection.
"Anwar and Fairwyn came to the new world by sailing ship, then moved deep into Virginia, gradually making their way across the mountains to Sycamore Creek. It was here they bore nine babies, all named for places in the old country." I laughed. "That's why we are all related, it seems, here in Sycamore Creek. I have more cousins than you can shake a black birch stick at. Poppy can tell you more about such things when he returns from his hunting trip."
The professor seemed to be puzzling something. "March," he said after a time. "There is a legend of a warrior in ancient times named Meirchyawn." When I frowned, he went on, "It has the same meaning as March. Have you ever heard of such a legend?"
Such a string of related family going back through the generations caught my imagination. "Meirchyawn," I said quietly, pondering the strange word. "I'm sorry, but I haven't heard it before."
The professor nodded. "For my book," he went on, "I'm studying the genealogies connecting the Appalachian people to England, Scotland, and Wales. Legends such as the one about Meirchyawn that have been carried from the old country and how they connect to tales and folk songs here."
I thought of the books on my shelf, the authors I'd long held in high esteem. I'd already decided that this man was fairer than I'd ever seen, and now I knew his mind was sharper than a scythe at harvest. I met his eyes, imagining the storehouse of knowledge behind them. A flush warmed my cheeks at the nearness of such a one.
"You will be famous for your book someday? Perhaps another Mister Dickens?"
He laughed lightly, shaking his head. "I'm hoping for acclaim, of course. But fame such as Dickens ...?" He chuckled again. "I hardly think so." His face was glowing, and I could see that my admiration pleased him.
He was studying my face when he again spoke. "About your playing ..." he said gently, "excuse me for not saying so earlier, but the others are right. Your songs are surely the best example of mountain music in this region." He paused. "They're lovely."
My music was a part of my very soul and had been so since I was a small girl. There was no separating my heart from my dulcimer, my fingers, or even my voice. My cheeks flushed again. Too often this afternoon they had turned crimson. I felt like a schoolgirl.
"Please," he said, "play something else."
"`Dabblin' in the Dew'!" Dearly shouted.
Grinning, I let my fingers dance through the beginnings of "Dabbling in the Dew." The rhythm flowed from my heart straight to the tapping of my toes.
Oh, where are you going, my pretty little dear, With the red, rosy cheeks and the coal black hair?
By the time I got to the last of the four verses, Dearly was singing at the top of his lungs. And surprise of all surprises, this sophisticated furriner had picked up the tune and joined in.
What's a ring on the finger if there's rings around the eye? For it's dabbling in the dew makes the milkmaid fair.
His gaze was bright when we stopped, and I knew it was his mind working that caused his joy over the song. "It's Elizabethan," he whispered reverently. "Elizabethan. Imagine such a find."
"My grandmother taught it to me, and her mother before her ..."
He smiled with his eyes of undecided blue. Then he stood abruptly and began to pace the porch, his brow furrowed, each step causing the planks to creak. Dearly looked up at him with a puzzled frown, then back to me and rolled his eyes.
Excerpted from Heart of Glass by DIANE NOBLE Copyright © 2002 by Diane Noble
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.