Back again at Zerk’s Cold Hearth

Sam Bevard
Sam Bevard -

It’s been a while Zerk, but I’m back and sitting on a foundation rock in what was once the main room of your little dwelling. As usual its fall-time again but early November and not October as it has usually been when I come here. It was not as easy getting here as in the past because, as they say, I’m getting on in years, and though I still move fairly well when I’m on my feet, my age will show when the time comes for me to haul myself up to leave. It’s a brisk morning and you would have had fire and a cup of Nancy’s strong hot coffee before heading out for your chores.

I came looking for squirrels again but have not seen or heard any. A few acorns have dropped from one red oak, but there are very few here at your place in this season when red oak acorns are the only mast there is in the woods. But I came this morning looking for more than a squirrel.

I checked my archives before coming to see if I could tell just when I was last here. I have not written about these visits in seven years, but I can remember being here on Christmas Eve in ’13. That time sticks with me because someone I was once close to lay dying in a hospital far away. I dropped by your place after a futile search for rabbits on the ridge by stomping briar patches and honeysuckle tangles. I thought about how you and your Nancy might have kept Christmas here when the cold stones of this fallen hearth glowed warmly with a fire from your own oak and maple, but I didn’t write about it.

It was a bit more of a challenge to get here than it was the last time, though the trail is still wide open as far as it leads down the point between two deep hollers. There are still a few of us who call the west side holler and the point by your last name and who know that this ruined chimney and jumble of limestone rocks was your home back in the 19th Century, but when we are gone the mention of you in connection with this wild lost place will go with us. The remains of your house are just as much part of the woods as the trees, leaf litter, and the other rocks.

I had to cast around in the woods before spotting the chimney because the woods have grown so thick and the stones are gray like the red oak boles, such as the big one that grows just a step or two beyond where your back wall probably stood. The hearth and chimney are near the tree and those were on outside walls. The trail in stops at the big cedar stand and it is darker and denser than I remember it, and the cedars end at the edge of the hardwoods, which on this bright morning sparkle with sunlight on dew and fall colors. But after puttering about I saw the little bench on over the slope on the west side and I knew I was close because your house ruins are at the beginning of the bench on the lip of the point. I imagine in your day the hardwoods edged the bench and ran down the steep lower bluff to the big holler much as they do now, and the bench and the gentler slope above it were clear and in pasture or upland crops or pasture.

On every visit it gets harder to imagine that you or anyone made a life here, that you had a farm prosperous enough that you owned a slave. Sorrow came to this place when your baby boy died and you buried him in the churchyard across the valley, visible over the tops of the sycamore timber along the creek below. With your house in the clear it was easy to see out over the valley. When your Nancy passed you put her in the burying ground at Plumville just a few steps from the door of the church that is there now, and I speculate they laid you near her unmarked. If your ghosts are around somewhere I suppose you can float on the wind between the places and your old home here in the woods. Wind was the metaphor the Lord used to explain spirit to Nicodemus, and when I’m alone in lost places such as this and I hear the wind course through the trees, I wonder whose spirits are riding it. I do all the talking when I’m here and if you are about and answer me at all, it is in language I can’t interpret yet: moans of wind and sighs and rustles of dead leaves as the wind jars them from oaks and maples and they settle sadly into their forever beds atop the substance of millions of seasons of their forerunners.

Not sure when or if I’ll make it back, Zerk. May not be here again until I come in the wind with you and whoever else still drifts on it through the bends and shadows of our old country. I’ll understand those leaf-sighs then and maybe add a few of my own to the chorus of faded voices that speak in gusts of fall wind and flurries of stricken leaves. Time and nature sweep away the visible parts of us from earth like old Cabin carries away the sycamore leaves that fall into it when rains fill all the little holler-drains from the foothills and the valleys and send irresistible walls of water rushing homeward. But I think something of us lingers in the places we have loved, even if flesh eyes and ears can’t see or hear us. There’s something profound but also sad about riding the wind as a bundle of thoughts and memories, to go where we “listeth” as the Lord put it, the barriers and boundaries men impose on each other no longer hindering us.

Until then, so long, Zerk.

Sam Bevard Bevard

Sam Bevard