Read an Excerpt
Curiosity is natural to the soul of man.
—first words of The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone,
John Filson, 1784
Dying cost nothing and could be done alone; otherwise, Randall Stargill might have lived forever. As it was he turned loose of life by inches. In a span of months he narrowed his gyre from the woods and pastures of his hunting days to the yard and garden patch surrounding the small white-frame house. Then the brisk winds of autumn confined him to the back porch and, finally, to the sofa in the square of parlor in front of the old black-and-white television. The wild tabby cats, who lived in the otherwise empty barn, subsisting on field mice and table scraps, grew tired of the meager handouts that came at irregular intervals and went elsewhere. Randall called to them a time or two after that, then forgot them.
His letters to his grown sons, scattered now between nearby Jonesborough, Tennessee, and Cincinnati, Ohio, always brief and infrequent, stopped altogether. His writing sprawled with his dimming eyesight, and he filled page after page of a pad of lined paper with his thoughts, but he sent them to no one.
Randall’s journeys into town in his old pickup all but ceased, as his vision failed even in the strongest daylight. Finally he lost interest in his last companions, the undemanding friends on the television screen who stayed with him hour after hour, and whose faces he remembered even when those of his long dead mother and his late wife, Clarsie, faded from his consciousness. As winter set in, he could no longer walk up the hill to the family burying ground, and the graves went untended. His wife’s new granite marker stood close to the wrought-iron gate, a few yards down the slope from the rounded tombstones of the older Stargills, and well away from the rows of upright splinters of rock that had never been carved with names or dates. No one now remembered whose graves these rough stones marked. They were already old when the century began, and Randall had never asked his elders whose bones lay beneath them.
The farm had been Stargill land since 1793, not that they cared much for family history. No Stargill had ever stood for Congress or headed an army or attained sufficient prosperity to be a pillar of the community. All they had done was to claim their mountain, farm it faithfully, and keep it in the family through two centuries and a civil war. No matter what party was in power, the Stargills hunkered down and went about their business. They’d been draft dodgers in the War Between the States, because in the Tennessee hills the wrong side was to take a side. They got more from their Celtic forebears than blue eyes and short stature: in their blood was the knowledge that who you are is tied to the land, no matter which government wins the election or whose flag flies over it. The land stayed the same, and the Stargills mostly had, too. When they died, they and the land became one.
The one grave that was not there was that of Randall’s second son, Dwayne. He had been a wild, wilful boy, seldom in school, scarcer still when there was work to be done on the farm. At seventeen, he left home and hills for a drunken, rootless life that finally ended on a dark highway in Florida, in a wreck that killed four people—Dwayne’s fault. Clarsie wanted to bring him home, but Randall said no. They sent money for cremation, and Clarsie went down and spread his ashes on the ocean. It was the only time she had ever left Tennessee. Randall did not go with her.
And Fayre. Fayre was not there, either. Of course, she wasn’t a Stargill. If she had rested there, he might have found the strength to climb the hill, despite his failing health. But Fayre was not to be found in the family burying ground. There was a drawing of her in a dimestore frame tucked into one of the drawers of the walnut bureau, torn from an old newspaper, and so brittle now that the creases in the yellowed page had begun to split. The sketch showed a wraith of a child with strange, staring eyes too old for her tiny face. The newspaper artist had never seen his subject, so he had fashioned his drawing from descriptions and family resemblances, using the mother’s eyes, drawn from life—the same dark blue as that of her child, but holding a weary sadness that Fayre had been spared. Even before his eyes began to fail, Randall Stargill seldom looked at that drawing. He saw her plainly enough.
In January, the plastic Christmas wreath on Clarsie’s marker faded and cracked in the cold, but Randall was not there to see the desolation. His oldest son and his wife had brought the wreath when they drove in from Cincinnati for a visit on Christmas eve. The next morning Robert Lee had taken the wreath up to the burying ground himself, and he’d come back from his mother’s grave red with cold, his cheeks crusty with tears. Then Robert and Lilah had sat on either side of him on the sofa, making cheerful chatter, and patting his hand, and trying to make him eat the cookies they’d brought, while he smiled faintly and wished they would go away.
Randall said over and over that he felt fine, and he thanked them patiently for the slippers and the shaving lotion, which now lay forgotten on the lamp table in the sitting room. The other boys called in on Christmas night: Garrett from overseas somewhere, and Charles Martin from a hotel in California, because he was on tour for the entire month of December, opening for the Statler Brothers.
Clayt, the youngest, had come by late that evening, and offered to take him down to the diner or to scramble some eggs in the kitchen that Lilah had just cleaned, but Randall said he was tired, not hungry. After a few more minutes of awkward conversation, Clayton wished him a merry Christmas and left. Randall was glad. He had never had much to say to the boys, except to straighten them out when they broke the rules, but when Clarsie was alive, it hadn’t been so obvious. Her passing left a great silence that neither side could be bothered to fill.
Nobody called on New Year’s.
As the weeks drifted by, he ate when he remembered—the contents of whatever can came to hand in the pantry, or the scraps of Lilah’s stale cookies—and his body grew brittle and wasted.
When the cold blasts of early March and his own infirmity drove him to his bed, he stayed there, curled up in a snowdrift of dingy sheets and sticky pillowcases, drowsing, unmoored from his house and his life, but not yet gone.
* * *
The white pillowcase became apple blossoms, and he was straddling the limb of an old tree in the high meadow. He was small—the ground seemed far beneath him, and the hands clutching the limb were the stubby, unveined hands of a child. The brown feet that dangled beneath it were bare, already toughened from a month of wandering unshod over rocky hillsides. At the base of the tree, a brown and white puppy barked up at him, but he paid it no mind. He was looking for Fayre.
He saw a movement and a flash of gold on the edge of the meadow, and she was there, waving impatiently. He swung down from the tree limb and ran toward her. She was seven years old—two years his senior—but she was reed-thin in her flour-sack pinafore, and her heart-shaped face, ringed in blond curls, seemed translucent in the morning sun.
“What are you doing playing around this old tree for?” she demanded, hands on her hips.
“I almost got to the top, Fayre.”
“You did not. You were on a branch bigger than you are. And you know Mama said you wasn’t to climb the apple trees. You’ll break off the blossoms, and then we’ll have no fruit come fall. You might break your neck, too.” She sounded less concerned about this latter possibility.
“I was careful.”
“Any baby can climb an old apple tree. Wouldn’t you rather go exploring?”
“We’re not supposed to wander off.”
“Well, what if we don’t go too far? If we can still hear somebody calling us, we’ll be close enough. I want to go look for that tree with the writing on it.” She nodded toward the dark woods. “I want to see can I read it.”
Randall shifted from one foot to the other. “By ourselves?”
“You’re not a-skeered, are you?” Her freckled nose wrinkled and she sneered at him. “You think a bear might get you?”
“Tree says there’s bears out there. If it’s real, and not just another fairy story, like the one about the beanstalk.” Randall tried to sound skeptical of the whole idea, but he was peering around her at the blackness beyond the chestnut grove.
“’Course it’s real,” said Fayre. “Mama told us, didn’t she? And she didn’t say once upon a time, like she does when it’s a fairy story. She said there was a tree on this here mountain with words carved on it by Boone hisself. She said she seen it lots of times when she was little. I reckon it ought to be close to the creek bed. You gonna help me find it nor not, Randy?”
He ducked his head, and thrust his hands into the pockets of his overalls. “Why couldn’t we ask Mama to take us there herself, then?”
Fayre gave him a scornful look. “She’s too busy working around here, now that your daddy’s gone. Besides, she never goes into the woods any more. I reckon girls just don’t have no fun after they grow up.”
The part of his mind that wasn’t five years old anymore stirred, and wanted to cry out, but the little boy in the meadow nodded. With only one glance back at the shabby frame house below, he took his half-sister’s hand, and walked into the forest.
It hadn’t happened that way. But after more than half a century he had told that story so many times that it had taken on a kind of truth even in his imaginings.
* * *
Randall Stargill had been dreaming for two days and a half when Angie Jordan began to wonder about him. She had pulled up to the mailbox with his day’s allotment of circulars and mail-order catalogues, and when she pulled down the metal flap to insert the pile of junk mail, she saw that yesterday’s delivery, and the one before that, was still there. At most residences, Angie would have attributed this lapse to oversight or absence. She would have shoved the new batch into the mailbox without a moment’s thought and gone on, but Randall Stargill was old and frail, and, besides, his truck was still in the driveway, exactly where it had been when she last drove by. She left the circulars, and drove on to her next delivery, but the unclaimed mail still troubled her.
When she reached the next mailbox over the ridge, J. Z. Stallard had walked down the hill from his farmhouse and was waiting for her, wanting to buy some more stamps for bill paying. She asked him about the old man, because the Stallards and the Stargills had been neighbors since their mountain was in the lost state of Franklin instead of the state of Tennessee. Besides, to Angie, who was twenty-four, the angular, silver-haired J. Z. Stallard, who was sixty-five, and scraggly old man Stargill, seventy-eight, passed for contemporaries. “Has Mr. Stargill gone visiting his sons this week?” she asked as she counted back his change.
J. Z. shook his head. “Not that I know of. He almost never leaves home since Clarsie passed on. He never was one to travel. Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered,” said Angie. “He hasn’t taken the mail out of his box in a couple of days. I thought he might have gone visiting, and forgot to have his mail stopped. Lots of people go off on vacation without telling the post office. You’d be surprised.”
J. Z. Stallard nodded, ready for the conversation to end. “I believe he’d come and ask me to watch out for things if he did take a mind to leave,” he said. “I’ll look in on him directly.”
As Angie’s station wagon eased off down the road, Stallard fished his keys out of his pocket and walked to his truck, hoping it would start. It needed a new carburetor, but he was trying to put off the purchase until his tax refund came back.
As he drove the half mile to the Stargill place, J. Z. Stallard tried to think of all the bad things that could have possibly happened to Randall Stargill—everything from a heart attack to armed robbers breaking in and tying the old man up while they ransacked the house—because he half-believed that if you thought of a bad thing in advance, it wouldn’t have happened. In his experience, bad luck was always the unexpected disaster, like the lightning striking the barn roof in October. The fire department had managed to get there in time to save the structure, but the roof was badly damaged, and there hadn’t been any insurance to pay for replacing it. These days farming was supposed to be a part-time job, but it was all he had ever done, and he was too old to change now.
If he had thought about it, J. Z. Stallard might have been forced to admit that he didn’t like Randall Stargill all that much. The old man kept to himself most of the time. Perhaps it was a habit that he had got into as a youth, when people still remembered the old tragedy and either steered clear of him or tried to pry into family matters. Whatever the reason, he seemed to expect people to take against him, and there was a wariness about him that made folks uneasy without knowing why, so they left him alone.
When Clarsie was alive, the Stargills went to church, and they had showed up at community get-togethers, where Clarsie talked and Randall stood around holding a plate of food and saying as little as possible, but now that he was a widower, he seldom ventured past the gate to his farm. Randall’s lack of charm and neighborliness was not an issue today, though. He was a neighbor—maybe even distant kin if you checked the family pages in the Bible to way back when—and duty required J. Z. Stallard to do all he could for the man.
He pulled his truck in behind the faded Ford F-100 that had been Randall’s vehicle for more than a decade. That it was still there did not rule out anything, in J. Z.’s opinion. Randall might have left the mountain in an ambulance, and robbers would not have stolen such a decrepit truck, regardless of what else they might steal. As he walked to the house, he looked for signs of broken windows or any evidence of forced entry. Maybe he should have called Sheriff Arrowood, he thought. At his age, J. Z. Stallard was in no shape to play hero against a gang of vandals. All seemed peaceful, though.
He found the back door unlocked, and after waiting a few moments while his knocking went unanswered, he let himself in. The kitchen was rank with stale food and unwashed plates, but he still didn’t see any sign of intruders. The only disarray was the ordinary detritus of a solitary man who had ceased to care how things looked, or even how they smelled. He walked to the living room, to get away from the kitchen stench, and cupped his hands over his mouth, calling out for Randall, but all was silent. Illness, then, thought Stallard.
He walked from one littered room to the next, praying he wouldn’t trip over his neighbor’s remains in the dimness. He found Stargill in the little back bedroom, burrowed under a load of quilts and blankets, eyes closed. He was pasty-faced and gaunt, but when Stallard pulled back the blanket he could see a faint movement of the old man’s chest, and he sighed with relief that he had not come too late.
Stargill wasn’t dead, but he wouldn’t wake up. J. Z. Stallard went back to the kitchen, intending to call the rescue squad. He had just lifted the receiver when he noticed the white envelope atop an address book by the telephone, addressed “To Whoever It Concerns.” J. Z. replaced the receiver and picked up the envelope. He reckoned that the act of intruding with good intentions made it his concern. He hoped it wasn’t a suicide note, because it suddenly occurred to him that he might be the closest thing poor Randall Stargill had to a friend, and he didn’t want to blame himself for his neighbor’s despair. He could have visited oftener, he told himself, as he tore open the envelope. Not that Stargill ever seemed grateful for company.
For an instant, before he looked at the contents of the envelope, Stallard wondered if he would learn the end to the old tragedy. He hoped not. It was best forgotten. It had nothing to do with him, and he did not want the task of deciding what should be done with the truth.
“I DO NOT WANT TO LEAVE HOME.” The words were printed in shaky block capitals on the top of a sheet of lined paper. “I WILL DIE HERE.”
Below that, Stargill had written the names of his sons: Robert Lee; Dwayne (deceased); Charles Martin; Garrett; and Clayton, with a phone number listed only for the oldest and the youngest. Beside Charles Martin’s name, the old man had written, “Unlisted. Keeps changing it.” And after Garrett’s name the words “Warrant Officer” appeared in parentheses, with the notation: “On active duty. Hard to find.” On the succeeding pages the handwriting became more crabbed, words packed close together, filling one sheet after another with instructions. J. Z. stared at the contents of the envelope, wondering what he ought to do.
Mr. Stargill was still hanging on to life, but he remained in a coma. There was no doubt in Stallard’s mind that his neighbor belonged in the hospital in Johnson City. The county ambulance could transport him there in less than an hour, but the note was adamant: he was to be left at home. That seemed clear enough, but Stallard wondered if such a document would legally absolve him from the responsibility of getting the old man more help than perhaps he wanted.
What if Stargill really was at the end of his long life? He was nearly eighty, and failing; his family was gone. Sometimes nursing homes kept you from dying without really keeping you alive. They could hook old Stargill up to purring machines that fed him and breathed for him without really bringing him back, and he could linger like that for months, tended by strangers, trapped in the concrete walls of the old folks prison.
It wasn’t cheap, either. Somebody at church had mentioned an elderly aunt who’d had to go into a nursing home for long-term care, and her children had ended up selling the farm to pay for a comatose existence that may have been intolerable to her. J. Z. hoped that if he ever hovered between living and dying, with his foot caught in the trap, that his daughter Dovey would have the good sense to let the end come quickly. He didn’t want to die by inches among strangers.
He looked again at the scribbled sheet of lined paper. Old man Stargill didn’t want a drawn-out death, either. That was clear. But it was also clear that J. Z. couldn’t turn around and walk out as if he had not found the sick man. Regardless of Stargill’s wishes, J. Z. could not live with such an act of abandonment on his conscience.
He picked up the phone, hesitated a few moments longer debating the possibilities, and then dialed his own number. He let it ring a dozen times to give Dovey time to answer in case she was at the clothesline or out checking on the livestock. They had an Angus heifer that was nearly due with her first calf. Finally he heard his daughter’s gasping hello, and he talked quickly while she caught her breath.
When he’d finished explaining the situation, he heard her sigh. Finally she said, “You didn’t call an ambulance, did you?”
“No, Dovey. I haven’t yet. He’s set against it in his note. I figured the least we could do is to notify the boys, and let them make the call. But he needs somebody with him, and I’m no good at sickbeds.”
The sigh again. “All right, Dad. I’m coming over now.”
* * *
An hour later, Dovey Stallard came out of the bedroom, wiping her hands on a dingy towel. “I cleaned him up, and changed his sheets, anyhow,” she told her father, who was sitting at the kitchen table. “His condition hasn’t worsened any. Now what? Have you notified his kinfolks?”
J. Z. shook his head. “I couldn’t sit still. Besides, I was trying to straighten up a little in here. I got most of the garbage bagged to take out and the floor swept, so it won’t stink so much. I wouldn’t want the boys to come home to that.” He picked up Randall Stargill’s letter. “I figured I’d call them when I finished the kitchen. Not that I think any of them will be home this early, and, to tell you the truth, I’m not looking forward to the conversation when I do get up with them. This letter is the damnedest thing, Dovey.”
“What is it? A will?”
“Not in so many words. It says Stargill doesn’t want to leave. Says he wants to die at home. He wants his boys to build his coffin. I believe his mind was going toward the end. But, of course, he ought to be in intensive care, because this might be a treatable illness. Maybe it’s not his time yet.”
“I don’t think he has a chance of making it,” said Dovey, glancing at the crabbed writing on the paper. “He must be nearly eighty, and he’s in a coma. Suppose we take him to the hospital, and he gets better, and then he gets out and sues us for violating his instructions?”
Stallard shrugged. “He couldn’t get much from me, Dovey. I can’t even pay the taxes on the farm this year. What with the fire and all.”
“He could sue for spite, and we can’t afford to pay a lawyer. Let somebody else decide what happens to him. You’ve done as much as duty demands.”
“We could call the county attorney,” said Stallard. “See what he says.”
Dovey shook her head. “You ever try to get a straight answer from a lawyer? We need to know now—not next week. Call Mr. Stargill’s sons about this. You’ve put it off too long already.”
J. Z. Stallard hesitated. He hated telephones. “Clayt still lives around here, doesn’t he?”
“He tells people he lives in the state capital,” Dovey sighed. When her father looked blank, she added, “You know—Jonesborough.” The village had a one-block business district and a population of a few thousand at most, but in the era of history that was Clayt Stargill’s passion, frontier Jonesborough had been a state capital. By 1788, when the lost state of Franklin was reabsorbed by North Carolina and Tennessee, Jonesborough’s brief flicker of glory was over, and it reverted to a paintbox-pretty mountain town where Norman Rockwell would have felt at home.
Dovey Stallard turned on the hot water, and began piling stained coffee mugs and food-encrusted plates into the sink. “Might as well do these dishes while we’re tidying the place up.”
“What’s he doing now?” He noticed that Dovey’s expression had not changed when he mentioned Clayt, and he was relieved. She had been mighty taken with the Stallard boys in her young womanhood. He never could figure out which one broke her heart. Dovey wasn’t much on talking about feelings.
“What’s Clayt doing?” Dovey laughed. “What day of the week is it? Clayt’s the same as ever. He does ten things at once, and hardly scrapes together a living out of the lot of them. White-water rafting guide. Freelance photographer. Local artist. Park service employee. I can’t keep track. All that education, and not a lick of ambition in his whole body. Of course, he’s the baby of the family.”
“I always thought he’d make a good farmer,” her father replied.
“He’s got the hang of being poor,” said Dovey. “But he doesn’t have a lot of practical know-how. You’d think that Charles Martin Stargill would have paid to have live-in help for his father. He must be making good money. I saw him on the Nashville Network last month, singing with—somebody. Might have been Louise Mandrell.”
J. Z. Stallard looked doubtful. “Charles Martin’s number isn’t here, and I’m sure the operator won’t give it out, with him being famous and all. Besides, he might be on tour or something—hard to reach. Same thing with Garrett in the army.”
“That’s too bad,” said Dovey. “Because Garrett is the likeliest one to take charge. He’s the only one who could make decisions and stick to them. When we were kids, he was always the one who decided what we played and whose side we were on.”
“I say we try Clayt first, because he’s closest, and Robert in Cincinnati.”
Dovey shrugged. “Fine. See if you can reach him.”
Stallard dialed the Jonesborough number, and waited, moving his lips a little as he rehearsed what he had to say. After nearly a minute, he hung up. “No answer.”
“Didn’t think there would be. I can’t see Clayt being cooped up inside on a fine afternoon. I expect he’s out wandering some place, and calling it research. You call Robert Lee in Cincinnati, Dad. After I finish these dishes, I suppose I could go out and see if I can find Clayt. He’s useless, but he’s the closest. If he’s still not home, I’ll leave a note on his door and then drive around and try to find him. I still remember most of his haunts.”
J. Z. Stallard glanced toward the dark hallway. “Should I stay here?”
“It would be best,” said Dovey, seeing his reluctance to be left alone with the dying man.
“I’ll be back with Clayt as soon as I can. And when you talk to Robert, see if you can get the phone number for the other two. Maybe one of them will have the sense to let you call an ambulance.”
In the small back bedroom, the old man slept on.
* * *
Clayt Stargill had climbed to the highest meadow because he wanted to feel spring coming. Actually, what he wanted to see, and try to experience, was the spring of 1761, and while this was as close as he was going to get to that far-off wilderness, it was still wrong by a long shot, and he knew it.
Daniel Boone, on one of his long hunts from the Yadkin settlement had watched for spring on just such a mountaintop in the Smokies, and Clayt was trying to capture the feel of the wilderness from Boone’s eyes. He had grown up hearing stories about Daniel Boone, mostly from the old-timers in the community, but sometimes at school, too. The eighteenth-century pioneer was considered a favorite son by the people of the mountains; there was hardly any place he hadn’t visited. Before Boone pioneered Kentucky, he had lived in the Virginia Blue Ridge, then on the Yadkin River in North Carolina. From there he had made winter expeditions into Indian country, the mountain land that was the communal hunting ground of the Cherokee, the Catawba, and the Shawnee, forbidden to settlers until the American Revolution nullified the British treaty. Each spring he would return to his family on the fringes of civilization, bringing furs that could be sold for the necessities of pioneer life.
He’d had a camp near what is now Boone, North Carolina, and he had roamed the Clinch and Holston river valleys in search of game. Legend had it that Boone had abandoned a dying horse in a meadow near Roan Mountain, only to return a few months later to find the animal restored to health by the abundance of the land, and many a county in Tennessee and southwest Virginia claimed to have once had a tree with Boone’s name carved deep into the trunk.
There was such a Boone tree in the Stargill family legend, and although Clayt had never succeeded in finding it, he could not quite lose his belief that such a thing existed, somewhere on the wild mountain land beyond the Stargill fence line. D. Boon cilled a bar on this tree—1761. Crude words carved into the bark of an old tree, a monument to an ancient battle between a great man and an even greater wilderness. Clayt and his brothers had spent long hours on the mountain looking for that fabled tree that his father insisted lay somewhere in the woods on Stargill land, but the old man never went with them, nor did he seem to care whether they found it or not.
Clayt grew up loving the land, and wanting to know everything about the plants and animals around him, but he’d had to find it out on his own. Randall Stargill, if he knew such things, kept them to himself. It was the same with Daniel Boone. Born in Pennsylvania in a Quaker farm community, his love of the wilderness had made him almost a changeling among his village-dwelling kinfolk. The way Clayt Stargill saw it, he and Daniel were a lot alike, except that it was easier to be that way in the eighteenth century than it was in the twentieth.
Clayt was 5'8" and sturdy, dark-haired with blue gray eyes, as Boone himself had been, and when he was dressed for the part—in leather breeches and moccasins, a long coat in the eighteenth-century fashion, and a Quaker-style beaver hat—there was a passing resemblance. Clayt always had to explain the beaver fedora to schoolchildren when he visited their classrooms as a living history instructor in the part of Daniel. No coonskin cap, he would tell them. Boone never wore one. That was just television, getting it wrong as usual.
The Boone outfit would have kept him warm enough up here, except for the wind, but he was glad of his boots and his modern down parka today. It was still winter by the calendar, and the wind that whipped across the open field numbed his cheeks, and pierced his lungs when he drew breath, but the signs of the coming glory would warm him more than the central heating down in his little house in the valley. He had work to do, a grant proposal to write and letters to answer from schools interested in his living history program, but all that would have to wait. Spring days like this were all too few, and he couldn’t waste them indoors. This was research, too, he told himself. He had to live the part to be convincing.
It would be cold for weeks yet here in the high country, but you could see spring coming from a long way off. On the far ridges across the valley, the maple branches were red-tipped with buds, and here and there beneath the bare hickory and oak trees, an early redbud flamed. Its deep pink, the solitary flash of color in the sepia woods, made him think of the burning bush in Exodus. Boone had named one of his sons “Israel.” Had he seen himself as Moses, leading his people into the promised land of Kentucky?
Clayt lay on his back, and looked up at the blue sky, streaked only with wisps of cirrus clouds far in the distance. It was a perfect day to watch the travelers on the celestial interstate. Migrating birds used the two-thousand-mile mountain chain as a path for navigation. The hawks would ride the thermals between the peaks and valleys, and the lesser birds followed the north-south ranges as their guide from winter to summer.
A flock of shiny black starlings flew past, and Clayt scowled up at them. Starlings didn’t belong here. They weren’t just passing through, like the falcons and the arctic buntings. They were invaders who came to stay: noisy, dirty interlopers who swarmed into a habitat, devoured all the food, and chased away the songbirds. They would have been a nuisance even if they had been native creatures, but they weren’t, and the fact that they were inflicted on the continent by a well-meaning idiot made their presence all the more galling to Clayt.
He wished he had been around just a hundred years ago: yesterday in geologic time, but in some ways an eternity ago. There were no starlings here then.
Daniel Boone had never seen a starling.
Clayt tried to picture the mountain as it would have been in 1761. First, he had to imagine being able to see for ninety miles into the distance instead of the paltry twelve miles of visibility you got in clear weather nowadays. Air pollution had shrunk the vistas as surely as clear cutting had felled the forests. Ninety miles. What could he see from those high meadows with such a range? Asheville? The Virginia Blue Ridge? He could not even imagine such wonders.
In 1761, there had been elk and buffalo in the North Carolina / Tennessee mountains, now remaining only in the place names: Banner Elk, Elk River, Buffalo Mountain. And over in Mitchell County there was a community called Pigeon Roost, named for the great flocks of passenger pigeons that were also gone forever. They had looked like large blue-tinged mourning doves darkening the sky in their flight, millions of them at once. They had been the most populous species of bird in North America. The last of them died in 1914—blasted into oblivion in less than two hundred years by hunters who slaughtered them by the ton, and then would not believe that the birds were gone forever. “They have flown away,” people said. “They’ve gone to Australia.” Now there was hardly anyone alive who had even seen one. Here and there a sad bundle of feathers gathered dust in a museum—all that was left of a mighty species.
Clayt looked out at the distant hill, silvered with the bare limbs of maple trees, and wondered how it would have looked in Boone’s day. There would have been chestnut trees on the hillsides then. Until sixty years ago these sprawling giants of the forest, with trunks twenty feet around, soared up into the sky a hundred feet or more, but they, too, were gone, killed by the fungus from an imported plant. The last of the great chestnuts had died in the thirties in these mountains, but Clayt saw their remnants sometimes in the deep woods, the bodies of fallen giants rotting away into compost in the green silence. Much of the mountains was national forest land now. He wondered if the government’s attempts at preservation would change anything in the overall process of destruction.
A single starling swept past Clayt Stargill, and he waved his hand to frighten it away. It spoiled the scene for him. Still, who was he to say that the bird did not belong to his Appalachia? As much as he longed for the mountains of his pioneer ancestors, he knew that the land had always been in the process of change, and that every species, past and present, was, at some point, an interloper.
He smiled at his own hypocrisy, condoning some species and excluding others, based on his whims. In fairness he had to admit to himself—and to those who went on his wildlife walks—that the Kentucky bluegrass was as much an interloper as the starlings, but it was a pleasant addition, and because it had been established a century earlier people had forgotten that it was not native to North America. Bluegrass is English timothy, used in straw form by pioneers as a packing material to protect their trade goods. When bits of seed escaped from the packs, they sprouted along the trails, and thrived in the new environment. If you banished the starlings from your perfect world, the bluegrass, too, must go.
What time would he call “real,” anyhow?
The mountains looked frozen in time, so immutable were they within the span of man’s lifetime, but he knew that they had changed many times over the millennia. Mountains had risen up, been ground down into dust, and rose again when the shoulder of Africa butted the Old Red Sandstone continent, making dents that were the peaks and valleys of the southern Appalachians. These mountains had once been higher and grander than the Rockies, but they were old now, headed once more toward the dust. Those young, jagged mountains were not his, though. They belonged to a tropical time, when warm fern wetlands stretched across Kentucky and West Virginia, laying down the deposits of vegetation that would turn into coal over the succeeding millennia.
Twelve thousand years ago, then. When the Ice Age had retreated back to the North, and perhaps human beings settled in the mountains for the first time. Wonderful creatures walked these hills then—the shaggy elephants called mastodons, American lions that would dwarf their modern African cousins, saber-toothed tigers, sloths bigger than pickup trucks, bears double the size of today’s grizzlies, birds of prey with wingspans of twenty-five feet, musk oxen, and camels, and horses. Perhaps among this bestiary were the inspirations for the legends of monsters in Cherokee lore. What a wild and magical place it must have been in that springtime following the Ice Age.
No. He would not have known the land here as it was then, a spare, frozen place, forested by spruce and fir trees that tolerated the cold better than the oaks and hickories of this warmer time. Although the glaciers were retreating by then, twelve thousand years ago, the highest points of the southern range would have been a tundra zone, with ground that seldom thawed, and unceasing winds that withered all but the hardiest of plants. Those harsher, younger mountains did not stir his blood, despite their wonders—tigers and wooly mastodons in a kingdom of ice. He had no place in that world.
He always came back to 1761.
The land would be familiar to him in its eighteenth-century guise, but cleaner, truer to its own spirit, unspoiled by the invaders: settlers and starlings.
Copyright © 1996 by Sharyn McCrumb