On Honeyman Bald

From Prologue: The Old Man's Tale

  Here is the story the old man told us up there, while the sun sank through a thousand feet of air, and we fidgeted and sneaked looks at each other, and the old man's wretched son kept his eyes on nothing in particular, but on the women in general. The old man ignored him, and sat himself with many a creak and sigh against a boulder that commanded a good view of the sunset.

  Long time ago, the old man said, in a hazy, far-off voice that made that time seem long ago indeed, at a time when the Cherokees and the Seminoles were having trouble ironing out a trade matter – to the point that insults had been exchanged and one or two foolish men had killed and been killed over it on each side – the Seminoles sent a runner all the way from what is now Florida to this very place, to what would be called Honeyman Bald when white men put names on places, but was called Snake Mountain by the Cherokees. The Seminole runner, who went by the name of Looks Far, was the son of a chief, and it was a sign of the great seriousness with which the Seminoles took this dispute, that they sent him. He was met by a party of Cherokee elders at the top of this cliff, right up where we set this minute. Recognizing that he had run the hundreds of miles from his lowland elders to The Snake Mountain, the Cherokees gave him a brief time to catch his breath before speaking, so that he would neither betray weakness by puffing and sweating, nor insult the Cherokees by speaking unclearly.

  Thing is, the run from Florida had gone badly from the start. Looks Far set out in good time and full of pride at being picked for this important mission, with two companions who were supposed to know the way. But the most experienced of these broke his ankle two days out, and the other tried to persuade Looks Far to turn back after leading them astray the next afternoon. It had been necessary in the end for the boy to rise from a restless midnight sleep and kill the false guide, and to strike out for the northwest alone, relying on the stars and the sun for navigation.

  But navigation in this country was not a matter of position and direction only; in following the direct line toward his destination, the boy missed any number of easy trails and passes, plunged through swamps he could have skirted in half the time on firm ground, and in the end been forced to go without sleep in order to run almost without stopping through the piedmont country, higher and higher into the Great Smokies and at last to the east side of The Snake Mountain, only hours short of the time - before sunset on that very day - when he was charged with delivering a message of peace to the Cherokees....

From Chapter 1.

  Already in May, it was hot that year. A sun twice life size blasted through blue haze, copying itself on everything of glass or metal. The brass handle on the post office door, dingy where it wasn't skin-polished, prickled as I went in to mail tax returns. Ellis Reed, the postmaster, nodded as I crossed the lobby.

  “Hot one,” Ellis allowed.

  “Already,” I said. I wasn't feeling wordy.

  Ellis slanted his face at the pair of fat envelopes. “Kinda complex this year, I guess. They Lord, not that a fella needs no extra complexities to tangle it up anyways. How's Lee?”

  “Coming along,” I lied. “Up and around now. We think she'll be on stage when Commencement comes along.” I expect he thought I was being terse. But I didn't owe Ellis Reed a medical bulletin, any more than I owed him a rundown on my late tax returns.

  The two subjects were the same thing, or rather different faces of one certain thing, the life-wrecking monster that had come to live with us. Lee Morgan Maryland, my wife and my life for more than fifteen years, had damn near died of a brain tumor six months before. The headaches started after Labor Day, the little slips of speech at Hallowe'en, and the tremor three weeks after that. The surgery that neither quite killed, nor quite cured her, took place on Thanksgiving morning while Bethany and I stood like a pair of corpses in the waiting room, praying for just one blessing to count. Bethany is Lee's daughter, my stepdaughter, at that time in her first year at Chapel Hill.

  After three weeks of intensive – and a few days of offhand – care at Duke, Lee came home to Gabbro for Christmas, so light it broke my heart to carry her upstairs. For another month, while the chemo and radiation kept her gaunt and bald, she slept, and vomited, and lay back again to gather the strength to vomit again. She smelled musty and abandoned, as if she already belonged in another life, in another place and time. When she spoke, it was of weariness, and of settling her affairs. Bethany came home a week early, laden with books, to help look after her. All through Christmas then, Bethany and I crept through the dimmed house, muffling our voices, sleeping in shifts, breathing shallowly. Students and neighbors and colleagues sent so many flowers and casseroles that you just about couldn't tell whether Lee was merely desperately sick, or had died last week....

From Chapter 9:

  “No witnesses,” I think is what he said. The gun blammed, I saw a brief flame at the muzzle, and a twig jumped from the cedar beside my head. I dove, trying pathetically to hide behind the stunted cedar.

  Lee began to twist and struggle in his grip, and the pistol fired twice more, the bullets humming and whining off the granite of Honeyman Bald. “Damn, little lady,” DB panted. “F'shit sake, hold still.”

  Lee fastened her eyes on me while she continued to buck and struggle in DB's grip to keep him from drawing a bead.

  “Remember what I told you. I'll explore later. Damn, explain.”

  It occurred to DB too late, simply to shoot Lee. He was putting the pistol to her head when she jammed a boot against the rocks and heaved backwards with all her strength. I saw what she was doing, and screamed in fear.

  “Hey,” DB said.

  It was the perfect last word for him. Propelled by Lee, he stumbled with her off the edge of the cliff. His mouth opened in a scream a foot wide. Lee winked and smiled at me as she fell, but not a sound came from her. I screamed for her as they tumbled together into the heaving sea of fog...

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